I saw it all. Elderly men with their pockets turned out. Girls dressed for parties in platform heels with the contents of their purses scattered across broken concrete. Splattered ice cream cones. Overturned red wheelbarrows. So much depends upon a man with a hatred of his own.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s aptly-named We Cast a Shadow is a harrowing exploration of the extremes that govern the psyche of the oppressed–light and shadow, good and bad, white and black.
This debut novel offers a bleak satirical depiction of a man mentally (and physically) warped by a lifetime of racism and brutality.
Imagine a dystopian near-future where racial relations have deteriorated in simultaneously predictable and horrifying ways. Set in a southern locale only identified as “the City” (but which feels suspiciously like Ruffin’s native New Orleans), We Cast a Shadow presents a world in which racial injustice exists openly and unabashedly, an eerily logical extension of current discussions on prison reform, educational inequality, and housing rights. Black citizens of the City are segregated to a fenced-in housing development called the Tiko, subject to police brutality and nightly curfews–punishments for black uprisings of the recent past. Ruffin seizes the immediacy of twenty-first-century fears like terrorist attacks, voter suppression, and the surveillance state, portraying them in explicitly racialized contexts. At the heart of these anxieties is “demelanization,” a strange procedure at Dr. Nzinga’s clinic that allows patients to lighten their skin, thin their lips, and narrow their noses.
It is this vague possibility of purchased whiteness via Dr. Nzinga’s clinic that becomes the unnamed narrator’s sole mission–not for himself, but for his biracial son, Nigel. Though Nigel is light-skinned, and could perhaps pass for white, the narrator sees the spot of dark skin on Nigel’s face as a true “black mark” against his son, a physical manifestation of the cycle of shame, injustice, and lost opportunity plaguing the narrator and his father before him. While perhaps somewhat noble in its premise, the narrator’s quest to spare Nigel from blackness becomes destructive in its methods. As his chilling obsession with demelanization grows, the narrator goes to increasingly dangerous lengths to reach his goal, allowing himself to be demeaned and compromised in extreme ways. His struggles at the law firm and at home are complicated by his addiction to “Plums,” chemical escapism with a dystopian flair.
The opening scene of We Cast a Shadow, in which the narrator is forced to play the fool in costume to earn attention and approval from his white employers, is the first of many echoes of Ralph Ellison’s’ Invisible Man. Like Ellison’s unnamed narrator, Ruffin’s protagonist is invisible not only to society, but to himself as well. The narrator’s bleak moral ambiguousness is intentionally jarring for the reader; it’s difficult to see him as likable or respectable. Yet, the narrator never hesitates to participate willingly in his own erasure if it suits his needs, even when the personal costs are enormous. Too, Ruffin has studied Ellison’s weaving, rapid-fire style: “I saw it all. Elderly men with their pockets turned out. Girls dressed for parties in platform heels with the contents of their purses scattered across broken concrete. Splattered ice cream cones. Overturned red wheelbarrows. So much depends upon a man with a hatred of his own.”
We Cast a Shadow is a challenging, unsettling read, but rewarding in its boldness.