Maurice Carlos Ruffin. We Cast a Shadow. Penguin Random House, January 2019. $27.00.
There is a lie that consistently recirculates around the United States. In a country built and haunted by racist ideologies, many citizens think it appropriate to adopt the mentality that they do not see color. Claiming that one does not see color is not magically antiracist. Instead, by claiming colorblindness, they are pointing to the existence of what they refuse to acknowledge. This is a privilege only a certain demographic holds: the one that can claim that the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter because the color of theirs has never negatively contributed to how they navigate their world.
In his debut novel, We Cast a Shadow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin relentlessly forces his readers to confront the very dystopian nature of being black in the United States—an existence many of his white characters fail to acknowledge as much different than their own. The novel even opens with a scene in which the only three black employees of a law firm have to compete in a costume contest in order to get a promotion. Though the book has been marketed as a bleak look at a potential future, I hesitate to give the impression that the prose is full of outlandish exaggerations of racism that are far from the here and now. Every single overwhelmingly uncomfortable conversation, instance of casual racism, and exploration of racial dynamics are undoubtedly occurring in our own current reality. Ruffin utilizes this sense of uncanny temporality in order to tell the story of an unnamed narrator who is willing to do anything to afford a “demelanization” medical procedure for his biracial son.
Despite loving his son, Nigel, enough to endure the exploitation of his own blackness in an effort to save his son from the same fate, the narrator’s desperation manifests itself into a very toxic influence on Nigel’s innocence. Throughout the novel, the narrator stretches himself incredibly thin in an effort to disassociate any remnant of perceived blackness from his son. This manifests both physically and mentally. The focal point of the narrator’s concern is the presence of a dark mark on Nigel’s face that grows and spreads across his body as he gets older. Beginning at age five, Nigel was forced to put painful bleach cream on his patches that both stings and leaves behind red blotches in an attempt to diminish any darkness present on his skin. Apart from attempting to erase the physicality of Nigel’s biraciality, the narrator even goes as far as stifling Nigel’s “innate ability as a young sportsman,” as he sees this talent as a reflection of Nigel’s blackness. He goes on to ask: “Did the world really need another child of the diaspora with highly developed ball skills?” before asserting that “Americans could cheer someone else’s brown boy down a field, and, after he’d wrecked body and mind, into an early grave.” Though the efforts of the narrator are seemingly deemed unforgivable, Ruffin does an excellent job at depicting a character who has been run down by the repercussions of white supremacy.
In his interview with the Paris Review, Ruffin answered a question pertaining to the narrator’s focus on being a father with: “The narrator understands that everything stands in the way of his son having a good life is connected to race, racism, and white supremacy, but he’s not an ideologue. He really wants to be this person who is ‘nonracial,’ but he knows it’s impossible. He wants it to be a nonissue and he wants that to be the reality for his son.” While the narrator accepts his fate in a white supremacist country, working to make race a nonissue for his son is ultimately futile. As a biracial child, Nigel will always have to navigate not feeling enough of either race as long as white supremacy exists.
While the narrator is painstakingly focused on reducing any trait of his son’s that could be seen as nonwhite, he forgets that there are many aspects of one’s identity that cannot be erased. Having grown up as multiracial myself, it was clear that any effort the narrator made to deracialize his son would never work. From growing up with people doubting that your parent was actually your parent to said parent attempting to minimalize your inherent “otherness,” those influences will never leave the child. The futility of the narrator’s efforts are what made the events and ending of We Cast a Shadow so heart-wrenchingly tragic. Ruffin’s prose, straight to the point and witty, effectively explores all facets of white supremacy and how it affects each person caught in its wake and shows that no one is safe. One is either complicit, a victim, or both.