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Maurice Carlos Ruffin Confronts the Horror and Spectacle of Racism

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Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel, We Cast a Shadow, details the harm inflicted by a black man upon himself and his family in pursuit of “demelanization,” a surgical procedure that removes melanin from the body. To fund this ghastly surgery for his son, whom he wishes to be white, the narrator will do anything, and We Cast a Shadow uses his feverish desperation and the ensuing antics to skewer the world that allows it.

Set in a time that might be described as the new New Jim Crow, the book mines America’s racist past to construct an outrageous but plausible and not too distant future. At its best, Ruffin’s satire is an unflinching reminder that the ignored blemishes of today—de facto segregation, colorism, police brutality—could be the cankers of tomorrow.

Transformative procedures and racism have been a common pairing in recent films, TV series, and novels precisely because of their terrible yet also fun-house quality. From the body swapping in Get Out, to the body modifications in Jess Row’s novel Your Face in Mine, to the garish Teddy Perkins and Benny Hope in Atlanta, to the horsemen in Sorry to Bother You, metamorphosis is suited to examining racism’s destructive twists and turns because it reifies monstrous ideas as monstrous people. To see a body designed by racism is to witness racism’s inherent disfigurement, its necessary warping of real people into unreal forms. But We Cast a Shadow takes the metaphor further than these previous works. By conjuring a society in which whiteness is literally attainable, the book turns it from an unachievable ideal into a graspable luxury—a commodity. This is the American dream in its rawest, most honest form, and We Cast a Shadow bathes in that ugly truth, exposing who is hurt and preyed upon when whiteness is the default. But in ways that plague its microgenre as a whole, the book spends more time romping around the fun-house than exploring the carnival that props it up.

Written in the first person, the book is profoundly shaped by the narrator’s relentless self-hatred and paranoia. Cast in the self-effacing mold of Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, and armed with the snark of Paul Beatty’s “sellout,” Bonbon, We Cast a Shadow’s narrator is a shrewd observer and an eager talker. An attorney, he is always on the defensive, justifying his worldview by constantly detailing the tragedies unfolding around him.

People treat the protagonist like a dunce, but he accepts it, using his perceived inferiority to better position himself to “save” his son through demelanization. He views his meekness as pragmatic, and the ambient delirium around him lends that stance some support. The unidentified Southern city he calls home is gratuitously racist: The law firm where he works also owns a plantation, where “strange fruits” are used as decorations; images of black fists have been made illegal; and a police vehicle monitors his home because his family has integrated the neighborhood. (“They’re safety patrols, not surveillance vans,” he assures himself.) As the husband of a white woman and the father of a mixed-race child, the narrator screens as much of this twisted reality as he can, outsourcing the moments he can’t bear to “Plums,” purple painkillers that numb him to the horrors. He suffers so that his family can thrive.

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