Like a satire of American racism, only tougher and more honest
Calling Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s “We Cast a Shadow” a satire seems less an accurate description than an effort to cushion the blows this novel lands with lethal precision.
It recalls when “Get Out” was nominated in the Golden Globe’s best musical or comedy category in 2017. That odd distinction deserved every side-eye it received. What’s so damned funny about a scorching examination of black fear and the insidious heart behind smiley-face white liberalism?
In that same vein, “We Cast a Shadow” is like a dispatch from the frontlines of the African-American psyche. Written with ruthless intelligence, it’s the story of a father’s love and how he tries to protect his son in a country that devours black lives through violence, incarceration, and poverty. For the unnamed narrator, this means considering a procedure to turn Nigel, his biracial son, white.
“What if I can ensure that my boy is not perceived as a black man?” he asks. “What if he is simply a man?”
The book takes its name from E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View”: “We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows.” Ruffin’s narrator wants to outrun blackness itself.
Nigel was born with what his father describes as a “speck, like a fleck of oregano” on his eyelid. As the boy grew, so did the birthmark, darkening to “the hard hue of my own husk, as if a shard of myself were emerging from him,” his father says. It is the narrator’s obsession. He makes Nigel wear caps to shield his face from the sun. He applies goopy lotions to his son’s skin, hoping to make the birthmark fade.
Nigel’s mark is not a sign of some future malady. Yet his father knows there are afflictions worse than anything found in a medical journal.
“The world is a centrifuge that patiently waits to separate my Nigel from his basic human dignity,” he says. Changing his son’s appearance isn’t about achieving “white” beauty; it’s about claiming for his son safe space in a society governed by white supremacy.
“There may be beauty in my blackness and dignity in the struggle of my people, but I won’t allow my son to live a life of diminished possibility,” the narrator says. This isn’t satire; it’s the nightmare of every black parent who wants to inoculate their children from the obscenity of this nation’s bigotry.
Living in an unnamed Southern city in a not-so-distant future, the narrator would seem to have it good. He has a woke white wife, Penny. He’s also an associate at a prestigious law firm, yet must endure racist humiliations, often for the giddy amusement of his white colleagues. Always guided by what he believes is best for his son, the narrator absorbs it so he can afford a medical “demelanization” for Nigel. Whether the child wants it seems lost on his father.
“I once believed my intent was to never harm him. But that’s not true,” the narrator says. “I meant to hurt my child from the first day I met him, when I was a giant and he was a papoose. I needed to hurt Nigel the way a physician introduces a junior varsity version of a virus so that the body knows what to do when the all-star team shows up.”
If this seems absurd, you’ve never had to tame the kink of your hair to fit into a predominantly white workplace. You’ve never had to choose between having your locks hacked off and forfeiting a school wrestling match. You’ve never had to smile through another racist comment because you don’t want to be branded as angry or disruptive.
When Ruffin’s narrator says, “[E]very black person is a de facto enemy of the state,” it evokes every time some Becky or Brad calls the police when black people engage in a ordinary activities like walking, shopping, or entering their own home. Satire is a shield, and Ruffin is having none of it.
Given the frightful state of our nation, there isn’t enough satire in the world to outpace the madness heaped upon us daily. This is to Ruffin’s benefit. He can drive his story to the outer limits and beyond, and never lose the threads of bitter reality that make it so haunting. “We Cast a Shadow” soars on Ruffin’s unerring vision. With it, comes the striking truth that it’s impossible to exaggerate racism or how its tentacles burrow deep and permanently disquiet the soul.
By Maurice Carlos Ruffin
One World/Random House, 336 pp., $27