We Cast a Shadow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin (One World 978-0-52550-906-6, $27.00, 336pp, hc) January 2019.
The opening chapter of Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel, We Cast a Shadow, left me gobsmacked. Our narrator – he tells us his name doesn’t matter – is an associate at a high-priced law firm. At the annual party, he dresses as a Zulu Chief and dances for the managing shareholders, “flapping his arms and legs as though they were on fire,” the shareholders laughing and imitating his movements. What makes this uncomfortable scene all the more cringe-worthy is that our narrator is a black man, in competition with the two other black men at the firm – one of them wearing prison garb, the other in a “Stepin Fetchit” uniform – vying for a promotion (framed as a “diversity hire”) where the losers will be fired.
If not for the anachronism of three black men employed at a law firm, you’d be forgiven for thinking that We Cast a Shadow was set in the Jim Crow South. The novel is set in the South, but, to quote Roxane Gay, a “post-post racial South” where all the headway made by the civil rights movement has been significantly rolled back. Our narrator is one of the fortunate few to have left the Tiko, a fenced-in ghetto where the majority of the black population reside. He is married to a white woman, Penny (“mixed-race couples were rare these days”), and has a teenage son, Nigel. While Penny is disturbed by the increased levels of discrimination and prejudice amongst the white community, our narrator is more concerned with his son’s birthmark, beginning as “a fleck of oregano” on the ridge of the eye that has gradually spread and darkened over the years. Looking to stymie any further growth or change in colour, our narrator encourages Nigel to wear hats and slather on creams that “whiten” the skin, but burn when they’re applied. His son’s “disfigurement” is the reason why our narrator is willing to demean himself before the managing shareholders. The money he will earn from the promotion will fund a bleeding edge treatment, demelanization, that will not only remove the dark stain but give Nigel unblemished white skin.
Not surprisingly, the publishers have compared We Cast a Shadow to Paul Beatty’s Man Booker award-winning novel The Sellout (and, less persuasively, to Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out). It’s not just that Ruffin and Beatty take a satirical, exaggerated approach to race in America. It’s that, like Dave Chappelle before them, they use the absurd and the shocking to be heard over the denials of racism from white America – including its President – who paper over the shooting of unarmed black men by police and are offended when, in response, NFL players take the knee during the national anthem. Beatty’s version of “Clayton Bigsby: The Black White Supremacist” (check it out on YouTube) is to have his black protagonist purchase a slave and draw up plans to segregate his community. Ruffin’s premise is somehow more incendiary, his narrator willing to sacrifice his marriage, his identity, his humanity just so he can stop his son from turning black.
I initially identified with our narrator’s desire to protect his son from a harsh world where the dream of integration and bridging the racial divide has long been surrendered. When I was younger, my father encouraged me to wear hats publicly, not because of the colour of my skin but as a replacement for my yarmulke (skull-cap), an item of clothing that attracted its fair share of anti-Semitic remarks. The key difference, though, is that unlike our narrator, my father never let me forget who I was. At home, at the Synagogue, and at Jewish day school I was taught to be proud of my identity. Our narrator sees no value in black culture, and goes to great lengths, tantamount to child abuse, to ensure that Nigel is disengaged from his roots (he’s horrified when Nigel befriends a black girl from the Tiko). I came to despise our narrator, and yet the great strength of We Cast a Shadow is that I kept on reading. Partly it’s because the plot takes a couple of unexpected turns, including the emergence of a black nationalist movement/terrorist group akin to the Panthers, but mostly it’s because our narrator is never cast as a villain or a caricature. His actions, as sinister and as misguided as they are, are symptomatic of a country that refuses to acknowledge its own deep scars. With his debut, Maurice Carlos Ruffin has written an unsettling, challenging novel, but also one that leaves a lasting, powerful impression.
This review and more like it in the April 2019 issue of Locus.
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