Maurice Carlos Ruffin Confronts the Horror and Spectacle of Racism
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.
The narrator’s candidness about his goals and his world give the novel a gonzo intimacy that’s as engrossing as it is repulsive. Demelanization is the lens through which he views his entire life, so his narration is tinged with a constant sense of denial. The promotion that would allow him to afford the procedure for his son is always just beyond his grasp, but he continues inching forward, no matter how much he must debase himself. From the novel’s opening scene, where he dances in front of the white partners of the law firm in a loincloth, to his support for a mayor who proposes deporting black criminal offenders to Zamunda (the fictional African nation from Coming to America), there’s a wry sting to his tenacity. He will truly pay any price to procure the presumed safety of whiteness for his son, and Ruffin plays up the one-sided cost of this transaction. His plight is so painful that it borders on the absurd.
The narrator’s quest to quell his pain only begets further suffering around him, an irony that Ruffin uses to get to the heart of his anguish. In one scene, as the narrator applies a pungent and corrosive bleaching cream to his son’s skin, his defense is so convoluted that it speaks volumes:
I am a unicorn. I can read and write. I have all my teeth. I’ve read Plato, Woolf, Nikki Giovanni, and Friend. I’ve never been to jail. I’ve voted in every election since I was eighteen. I finished high school. I finished college. I finished law school. I don’t have diabetes, high blood pressure, or the itis. If you randomly abduct a hundred black men from the streets of the City and deposit us into a gas chamber, I will be the only one who fits this profile.
The narrator claims to be protecting his son, but the truth is that he’s so lonely, so alienated by the dearth of black men who have walked his path, that he decides to erase the path altogether. By scrubbing the accident of his blackness from his progeny, he hopes to make the world less black, too. If he’s the only black man with a fulfilling life, he rationalizes, then it was never meant to be. In his view, unicorns are mishaps, not wonders.
This outlandish admission gives the narrator’s agony an origin point, and conveys why he’s so obsessed with his son’s looks, but it sells his paranoia haphazardly. He mounts a defense that might actually be reasonable. Because the racism found in the novel’s world is so heinous, there’s no way to discern whether the narrator is being shrewd or irrational. The motivations of his actions are clear from a personal standpoint, but at the expense of all other angles.
Ruffin pairs the anxiety of black parenthood and the hubris of the upwardly mobile with too much ambiguity. While it certainly is bleak for generations of black parents to have had to prep their children to be hated, “the talk” has always struck me as a deeply subversive ritual. If Ruffin’s intention is to mock the way the bourgeoisie use their personal success as a yardstick, it’s perplexing that the narrator doesn’t encounter other black people of his stature who might challenge or undermine his perceptions—who might push back against his ambitions.
The narrator’s tone is manic and unhinged, yet ultimately still authoritative, while the novel lacks a certain dialectical quality; there is a pull but no push. When he says he’s a unicorn, as arrogant as that sounds, there’s no way to verify or disprove the assertion. Whereas writers like Ellison, Beatty, and April Sinclair have stylishly used the idiocy of racism to comically offset its grayscale misery, Ruffin’s jokes are muted and hard to spot. What is parody and what is not is sometimes difficult to parse.
As the narrator’s quirks accumulate and his backstory lengthens, he comes across as a highly stressed individual, bogged down by his singular hang-ups. His hatred of blackness is always in the foreground, especially when it comes to his biracial son; yet the more time you spend with the protagonist, the more his desperate desire to escape his blackness remains his alone, never building into any broader insights into how his worldview was molded by the racism around him. He covets whiteness, but whiteness isn’t imposed on him: There are no skin-whitening ads, no cops harassing his son, no clear structural forms of racism preventing him from obtaining equal status. The net effect of all this one-sided wrestling with whiteness is that his misadventures read as pathology, individual neurosis, not a parable about a racist world spiraling out of control. The structures and pressures that haunt him are elusive and phantasmagoric, referred to but rarely rendered with any weight beyond his quest for demelanization.
Consider his trip to a public-housing development called “Tiko,” where the narrator grew up and returns in order to secure the promotion that will allow him to afford his son’s surgery. Evoking an internment camp, Tiko is introduced with a bleak deadpan: “The complex was surrounded by a tall barbed-wire-rimmed fence, and we had to show our IDs to get inside,” the narrator says. “If we lost our IDs, they wouldn’t let us out.” He still has family there, and Ruffin uses his palpable discomfort to amplify the misery and neglect of the black people who are still forced to call it home. But rather than pathos, we come away only with the narrator’s own self-loathing. “He stank of gingerroot,” the narrator says of his uncle. “His black hedge of an Afro probably hadn’t been trimmed in months, if not years.”
While Ruffin succeeds at conveying his character’s worldview, that attention to detail slackens as he zooms out into the world itself.
This struggle to scale up the narrator’s woes into larger insights about the social system that perpetuates racism is a frequent problem in the recent narratives about racial transformation. The Atlanta episode “Teddy Perkins,” for instance, uses the titular character to stage a grisly Michael Jackson allegory. Teddy is a retired black musician with skin as white as porcelain and eyes that retreat into his artificially chiseled face. An unblackened Frankenstein’s monster, he waxes on about his creator—an abusive father—with a relaxed demeanor that only feebly hides his pain. The episode is good television—suspenseful, funny, immersive, distinctive—but Teddy’s story is a one-off nightmare. His behavior and appearance are so idiosyncratic that his tragic fate seems to be his alone, not a revelation about the racism that shaped it.
That same narrowness plagues Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine, a tale of white men who live out their fantasies of exoticism by literally becoming people of color. Using Jewish-man Martin Lipkin’s metamorphosis into black-man Martin Wilkinson as his focus, Row lambastes the narcissism of white appropriation. His white characters admire the differences in others just to fill the void within themselves, and Row is acutely attuned to that slippage between admiration and dispossession—the easy swing from theirs to ours to mine. But what his psychoanalytic frame misses is how impersonal that process can be. White people do not have to be lonely kooks to be crooks; they can abscond with blackness through the law or through lopsided access to wealth and capital and political power, not just because they’re empty inside. White people don’t even have to want blackness for a particular reason, which is one of the subtler insights of Jordan Peele’s Get Out: A blind white man who envies the black hero’s photography skills wins the silent auction for his body, but not before every white person in attendance makes a bid!
The narrator’s arc in We Cast a Shadow and its notable number of asides allude to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Like Ellison’s protagonist, Ruffin’s narrator lacks a name. He participates in a humiliating spectacle for white viewers. He gets approached by a questionable organization after an arresting speech. He is injured in an explosion. He is antagonized by an extremist Afrocentric group and even runs through sewers. Homage is fine, but the fulcrum of Invisible Man isn’t its imagery or allegory. That novel’s secret strength is its cacophony of voices: The titular character stalks through an America filled with preachers, con men, and sophists, all of them talking over him or exhorting him to conform to their will. As he narrates, he also competes, fighting to be heard above the tumult. (There’s a reason Ellison’s book ends with the question “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”) Ruffin’s narrator essentially monologues for the entire book, overshadowing all of his opponents besides those in his head. He’s too loud and too visible.
Ruffin’s pastiche helps him effectively reproduce the white gaze, but in the end, We Cast a Shadow rarely explores how white supremacy operates as a system—the animus that fuels it, the society that sustains it, the lives and resources it consumes. Like its counterparts, the story relies so heavily on the inherent spectacle of racial transformation that it obscures the forces that conspire to make whiteness desirable. There is no Brotherhood, no Chthonian, no Mr. Norton. Outside of the shareholders who use the narrator as a pawn within his law firm, levers of power simply do not exist in the novel.
One of the book’s key moments is the revelation that the narrator began to detest blackness after witnessing his father defend his mother from a cop. His dad was consequently beaten and imprisoned, setting the narrator up to covet the safety and stability of whiteness. The flashback reveals the way that powerlessness manifests itself as a yearning for any form of control, providing an empathetic context for the narrator’s reckless pursuit of whiteness. But it could also have been a moment that more fully explored the structures—the police, the prison system, the family—that help reinforce American racism, that make outrageous inequality feel normal rather than deeply unjust. Unfortunately, just as We Cast a Shadow scratches the surface of systemic racism—the way that injustice ripples through generations—it ends up settling for little more than a neat character portrait. This is the lasting impression of the book, and of so many of these stories of racial transformation: Unicorns get lonely.