Ruffin, Maurice Carlos. “We Cast a Shadow: A Novel”, One World, 2019.
Protecting His Son
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the story of a father’s obsessive quest to protect his son even if it means turning him white.
Dr. Nzinga’s clinic is like the fountain of youth in a sense. The doctor has a seductive promise that “You can be beautiful, even more beautiful than before.” Anyone can get their lips thinned, their skin bleached, and their nose narrowed or even a complete change of skin color that will liberate you from the confines of being born in a black body. You just need to be able to afford it.
Set in a near-future Southern city that faces fenced-in ghettos and police violence, more and more residents are turning to this experimental medical procedure. Like any father, our narrator wants the best for his son, Nigel, who is a biracial boy whose black birthmark is getting bigger by the day. The darker Nigel becomes, the more frightened his father is.
Is this a hallucinatory novel or can one change his color so freely? “We Cast a Shadow” is a sharp satire of surviving racism in America as well as a profoundly moving family story. At its center is a father who just wants his son to do well in a broken world and this book is not afraid to show things as they are and exposes the the violence we inherit, and on the desperate things we do for those we love.
Ruffin takes on the issue of race at the core of the American experience. The nameless narrator’s love and concern for protecting his son in a near-future dystopia where there are oblique references to nuclear war, revolutions, and widespread civil unrest is the focal point for considering the issue of race in America. Our characters come from all races and colors and they are engaged “in a full, spectrum of complex ways, from protest, to malicious compliance, to defiance, to outright radicalization.” Ultimately though, by the narrator’s actions and various description of his “fractured psyche” we see the true cost of the struggle that involves and implicates all of us as we look to the future of America and the world
Author Ruffin anchors the race talks on a very relatable and engaging father/son story and from there on its classic dynamics of familiar relations presented against the context of a racially divided social order somewhere in the South. The father is well intentioned yet tragic; a black man who has done every possible thing to fit in and prosper in a society where black men seldom do and are so obsessed with white supremacy that many choose to alter their appearance to suit the social norm (remember Michael Jackson white?). The tragedy comes when he tries to quite literally whitewash his young biracial son to give him better chances in the world. He balances his career and his marriage, while dealing with his own difficult relationship with his father and keeping this balance by chemical means and holding on too tightly to things he values the most only to watch them all slip away. As a white man, I found the story to be devastating at times, especially towards the end.
Because this is a satire, so it’s also darkly humorous at times, especially the first chapter. Ruffin cleverly provokes us and feeds the mind while entertaining us. We connect emotionally with the characters as we think about what is really going on here. This satire has power and meaning and we pay attention and think about what we read. We see that it is possible to talk about race if done so in the right way (whatever that means).
The unnamed father whose lack of self-confidence and yearning for his son’s acceptance in the world is using every medical treatment possible in this near future world to make his son as white as possible. This is, of course, a misguided attempt is at odds with his wife and is so expensive that the narrator is doing whatever he can at work to move up, despite his not loving his job and the people who work there. His past begins to catch up with him and with his addiction to hallucinogens, the narrator views of right and wrong becomes more and more askew. Of course, it is nice to see a man who loves his son so much that he will do anything for him. He is a man who is teetering on the edge of not only a breakdown, but on the edge of right and wrong.
He believes that being black is bad and no matter what obstacles are put in his way and what rational thought is presented to him, he believes the only way his son, who has a noticeable black birthmark on his white skin, will find happiness in the world is if his skin is as white as possible. While his views are to the extreme and therefore flawed, we feel sorry for the man.