Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel We Cast a Shadow is set in an unnamed Southern city in the not too distant future. American society has become more racially restrictive. To avoid the various prejudices suffered by Black people, some resort to “demelanization”, a painful procedure that removes physical traits associated with Black people. The book is a slightly off-beat dark comedy about a nameless narrator who goes to desperate lengths to shield his son from this race-based dystopian society.
The narrator is a Black man married to a White woman, Penny, and the two are raising their biracial son. Nigel has a light complexion but a birthmark on his face is dark shade of brown. This gives the narrator cause for concern as he fears it draws attention to the boy being half Black and will make his life difficult. Obsessing about the birthmark, the narrator believes that it might be expanding in size and becoming more noticeable. To combat this, he hopes to secure a promotion at work that would increase his income and allow for Nigel to undergo demelanization.
Thus the story begins with the narrator attending a costume party at a mansion that is being hosted by his law firm. The job provides him with a good salary and the opportunity to live outside of the zones to which Black people are typically restricted. But between the mortgage, bills, and private school tuition for his son, there’s not a lot of money left over for discretionary spending. Getting the promotion would provide the extra income needed to obtain Nigel’s procedure.
The reality of the circumstances under which most Black people are forced to live in this society is slowly revealed and explained as We Cast a Shadow progresses. But one of the first hints that something isn’t quite right is the setup at the costume party. The narrator and the two only other Black people at the firm are pitted against each other for the promotion. Everyone is in costume but the three contestants are expected to dazzle the other attendees. Only one will be selected and the other two will be let go so in desperation all three are going to great lengths in an attempt to be selected.
Hoping to portray strength, the narrator arrives dressed as a Roman centurion, imagine a gladiator with a tunic, armor, weapons, and other accessories. It’s described as being a cool costume with good quality accessories that look realistic. The narrator is cool with one of the competitors while he has a passive-aggressive relationship with the other who is sort of a frenemy. His work friend is dressed in the traditional type of uniform worn by waiters at the local fancy restaurants. Meanwhile, his frenemy is dressed as a convict from the local prison with a jumpsuit, shackles, and tattoos to match.
On the surface, the two guys are dressed differently but the intent behind both costumes is to display subservience. There’s nothing wrong with earning an honest living but the one man is dressed as a servant. And the frenemy is for whatever reason massaging people’s feet. Of all things, why a convict, and what does being a convict have to do with giving people foot massages? I’d like to think that I’m a fairly down-to-earth person but I don’t do feet. I’ll help a child or an elderly person put on their shoes but I’m not rubbing anyone’s feet.
The choice of costumes says a lot about these individuals and the lengths they’re willing to go to get ahead. And while it’s unfair, being the only Black guys at the firm means that optics matter. Them debasing themselves in this way is just playing into and encouraging racist behavior. The narrator is initially dressed like a soldier which is typically regarded as respectable because it depicts strength, courage, and other positive attributes. But as one of the partners points out, this is a miscalculation as it goes against the expectations of the firm’s stakeholders and makes them uncomfortable. They welcome the stereotypical costumes and caricatures of the other two competitors but might feel threatened by the narrator’s warrior costume.
Now realizing that his costume might be viewed as threatening or aggressive in contrast to the other two who appear subservient and passive, the narrator begins to panic. Having some kind of pride and dignity within this environment, especially for these Black men, is not what’s valued. At least not if you intend to succeed and progress within the firm. The company does not hire and certainly doesn’t want to promote what they perceive as angry Black men. In keeping with that, the men that move ahead and succeed at the firm fit the stereotype of being docile.
Having made a strategic error, he seeks out the partner who leads his team and conveniently owns the mansion. She has a collection of busts and artifacts from around the world from which the narrator can cobble together a new costume. (It’s quite random but she just has pieces of people’s culture on display like knickknacks.) Yet, he again creates an outfit that’s off-message by making himself into Zeus, the king of the gods on Mount Olympus. And so he decides against that as well because it shows pride and ego which is not the image that they’d want to see conveyed by a Black associate. Settling on a loincloth, headdress, and weapons, he presents himself to the crowd for judging and launches into what’s intended to be some kind of tribal dance.
The entire scene is ridiculous and I interpreted it as commentary on assimilation and tokenism. Here are these three men who are likely intelligent and competent at their jobs. Yet they’re reduced to pandering and making fools of themselves in hopes of being accepted by the partners of the firm. The firm will use them, but notably only one of them, as part of promoting the company as being diverse. In exchange, they will be paid well but have to compromise themselves in the process. It’s deemed unacceptable for them to be their authentic selves or to openly display any kind of pride or dignity.
It’s telling that the narrator’s first instinct is to dress with pride as something powerful. And even when he tries to redress himself the second time, he still selects someone representing power. His instinct is to be proud and filled with pride but thinking of the opportunity to procure money for his son, he fights this urge. Instead, he changes a third time and despite feeling foolish and self-conscious, he pushes himself to stand before the crowd. This foreshadows the cringe-worthy compromises that he will make throughout We Cast a Shadow on his misguided quest to protect his son.
As the story progresses, you come to realize that while the narrator is living in America, his world is different from ours in some ways but also eerily similar. At first, the society seems normal but has become dystopian. It’s not clear how far back but in the past, Black people were being randomly attacked. In response, the government put in place security measures supposedly to keep Black people safe.
Most Black people live in restricted zones that sound quite a bit like ghettos or the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. Surveillance trucks drive around supposedly as a means of checking up on Black people to make sure that they’re ok. The narrator and his family don’t live in a Black zone but are still subjected to some of these controls. It all sounds incredibly invasive as though as a Black person you sacrifice your privacy for this protection and it’s not exactly clear that it was at Black people’s request. The machinations of trying to survive and thrive in this environment sound like a lot of work and stress.
His home life is happy but being out in this world whether at work or just moving about sounds tiresome. Going back to the narrator’s law firm, the workplace is plagued with all manners of petty backstabbing, conniving, and scheming. The workplace shenanigans are interesting to read but I wouldn’t want to work there as it sounds like a terrible place.
And in the midst of all this, waiting and praying to learn if he got the job while keeping up appearances at work, the narrator gets a call from Nigel’s school. His job is important but faced with attending a work meeting about his prospects and going to his son’s aide, the narrator prioritizes his son. He doesn’t just value his job or position for its own sake but rather because of the life it enables him to provide for his family. So when put in the position to choose between the two he chooses his family.
Nigel is about Penny’s complexion so he is very light but has a very dark birthmark. The narrator feels that without the birthmark, Nigel could pass as being White or at least wouldn’t be readily identifiable as Black without scrutiny. And so he obsesses about the birthmark specifically but also about Nigel doing anything that might result in him becoming darker.
Penny doesn’t have a problem with Nigel’s birthmark or complexion at all. She accepts it as it is and overall seems to be less concerned with race in comparison to the narrator. Nigel also doesn’t seem to have any issues with his birthmark. But living in this society as a Black person, the narrator knows first-hand what their son might face. He and Nigel have had a secret understanding about dealing with these things that Penny is not privy to. Yet, it comes out that the narrator has been supplying Nigel with and pressuring him to use bleaching cream.
At this point in We Cast a Shadow, we haven’t heard much about his family beyond his dad being in prison. Though we do learn that Penny’s family has pretty much disowned her or at least she’s disowned them. Interracial relationships aren’t against the law but they’re kind of frowned upon. And her family didn’t approve of her dating this black guy in college and certainly not marrying him. As a result, it’s led to some estrangement.
It was a bit weird but throughout We Cast a Shadow, the narrator has these internal monologues that are funny at times but can also veer off into being kind of pathetic. I didn’t necessarily agree but understood the motivations behind the narrator’s perspectives.
I am aware of the difficulties and have personal experience with the discrimination that comes with living in the world, especially in America, as a Black person. But I don’t believe physical assimilation through means such as skin bleaching or plastic surgery are the way to respond to prejudice. Nor is suppressing your true self for acceptance the way to deal with being otherwise deprived of resources or cut-off from opportunities for advancement. You might achieve the goal of being integrated into this society but at what cost?
The narrator and his family leave the city to attend yet another company outing this time in the form of a weekend retreat at a plantation. (Places in the South sure do seem to like these plantations and plantation-related names.) A bit of tension remains between everyone due to Nigel’s meltdown at school and the resulting argument about the bleaching cream.
The narrator and Penny use their time alone in part to clear the air and get rid of the tension between them. He then shares a nice little father and son moment with Nigel but it’s ruined when we find out that he’s still supplying Nigel with the skin bleaching cream and making him use it. Penny made the narrator agree to leave Nigel alone about his birthmark and most importantly to stop pressuring him to use the bleaching cream. Yet, at the retreat, he constantly harps on Nigel wearing a hat to shield his skin from the sun.
I don’t know this man and he’s a fictional character but to say that I was annoyed by him is an understatement. Nigel doesn’t want to use the cream as he has no problem with the birthmark and also because it’s painful. Penny doesn’t want Nigel to use the cream because she doesn’t think anything is wrong with his appearance so there is nothing that needs to be changed. Yet, the narrator not only continues to pressure Nigel to use the cream but also makes him lie and keep it a secret from his mother.
As parents, you’re supposed to be a united front. Sure, a child might come to one parent to speak about something they might feel uncomfortable discussing with the other parent, especially if the parent and child are of different genders. But as a parent, unless it’s about a gift or surprise party, it is wrong to encourage a child to lie to or keep secrets from the other parent. And in this case, the narrator saddles Nigel with the burden of keeping a secret that he knows would make his mom upset.
The plantation is a resort that offers different activities, one of which is a carriage ride entitled, “Paradise Lost”. There are actors dressed from the period to tell its history and they lament the loss of how things used to be. That is with regards to the property while completely ignoring that people were enslaved on the plantation. Think about that for a second, and just how inappropriate and ridiculous it is.
And then there are these frequent exchanges where people look at Nigel oddly. In the past, interracial couples might have been rare to see and would attract stares but nowadays it’s like who cares? At first, it seems like Penny and the narrator are the ones attracting attention and that might be it in part. But the people do double takes with Nigel and the narrator keeps a watchful eye for any new signs of Blackness in Nigel.
It turned out to be a different kind of book but the plantation visit and how things unfolded reminded me in some ways of the movie Get Out. Being out in the woods with weird interactions with the hotel staff and multiple instances of microaggressions gave an eerie sense that things were about to go left. I was sitting on the edge of my seat trying to will the narrator and his family to run away from these people.
Back in town, the narrator continues to experience microaggressions with people at the firm as well as just being out and about in town. This seems to be a similar but alternate future where some things aren’t immediately explained and rather unfold over time. You get the sense that this is supposed to be a more evolved society where race is less of a factor. Yet it seems to still be very present, just more subtle. Most people don’t openly discuss race or racial issues but there are little hints that all is not as it seems. Because it’s unfamiliar, the environment throws you off but then the social interactions come across as being incredibly weird but not unbelievable.
At one point, Nigel and the narrator attend a basketball game with some other people from the firm. The narrator is dressed for the occasion but a woman tries to give him her trash assuming that he works there. She then proceeds to eye him suspiciously when she realizes that Nigel is with him. Completely ignoring the narrator, she begins asking Nigel all kinds of questions trying to figure out their connection.
Certainly, as an adult, if you see an adult and child together and the child appears to be in distress or the situation looks sketchy, maybe try to make eye contact with the kid or alert a police officer. But in this case, there is nothing described that would lead a sane person to believe that something is wrong. The woman’s interjection into their situation just seemed weird. Yet she fits the profile of the type of person that has come to be referred to as a “Karen”.
Unlike Penny, it turns out that the narrator is still in close contact with his family. Well, at least his mother and cousin, as his father is in prison though the reason is unclear. There are protests taking place in the city and his mother who owns a small restaurant is actively involved in the community and supports the protests.
His mom and cousin seem more at ease with themselves in comparison to the narrator. His cousin calls him “Frank Sinatra” because he wears a fedora and has what might be a conk or some similar hairstyle that would have been cool back in the 1950s or 60s. Even in laid-back situations such as the basketball game and visiting his mom’s restaurant, he’s dressed up. There’s nothing wrong with being presentable but being overdressed is a thing. You’d look crazy wearing a three-piece suit to a backyard BBQ where everyone else is dressed casually. The narrator seems like a bit of a try-hard where you shake your head and pity him.
While we don’t get a description of the narrator in one fell swoop, these little details trickle out through his interactions with others. It’s like if you think of lighting a camera lens, the image of the narrator slowly starts to come into focus. I was a bit frustrated by the lack of a name but thought the slow unfolding of the narrator was a nice creative touch.
We learn more about the narrator’s background as well as get more insight into his current condition when he links up with his college friend and drug supplier. Yes, turns out this dude is so stressed and tightly wound that he’s popping pills. The group goes back to the narrator’s old neighborhood which consists of what sounds like a housing project in one of the zones to shoot a promotional video for a campaign he’s putting together for work.
His mom who now owns and operates a fried chicken restaurant was a trained chef while his father was a professor. When he was growing up, the neighborhood was a pretty decent place to live but over time it has deteriorated. The narrator’s family was forced to live in this community as other families were also being forced into other communities around the city. But when other communities were knocked down to make way for development projects, people from those communities were forced into the narrator’s neighborhood. The new residents were increasingly poor and space and opportunities were becoming increasingly scarce.
I found this part of We Cast a Shadow to be incredibly interesting as it was fictional but mirrored some aspects of gentrification. So the mention that calamities took place in some neighborhoods that were coveted areas which were then taken over and redeveloped caught my attention. Some of these events are described as being naturally occurring while others were man-made which brought to mind Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I love fiction that plays around with real-life facts.
As the story progresses there are these little breadcrumbs and details along the way that kind of help you figure out the period and narrow down the location where the story is taking place. It’s within America but based on little details that are shared along the way, I came to believe that it took place in New Orleans. There’s a reference to Wayans Brothers skits and the Million Man March both of which took place in the 1990s and are referred to as having taken place decades in the past. I used them as a frame of reference for the period in which the story is taking place.
The narrator’s law firm is trying to secure the business of a healthcare facility that has standard departments such as their trauma unit which might be at increased risk for litigation. But their plastic surgery department is of particular interest as it’s where a lot of people go demelanization. Not only are people bleaching their skin but they’re also getting nose jobs, reducing the size of their lips, and various other plastic surgery procedures to alter their appearance so they look less Black.
Nigel’s birthmark is on his face and is brown in appearance which stands out in contrast to the rest of his skin which seems to be of a pinkish white hue. The narrator explains that while this is the most visible birthmark it’s not the only one. There are several other birthmarks on his body and the narrator believes them to be growing in size and expanding to the point where he fears that they will begin to connect and cover the boy’s entire body. (His growing obsessiveness reminded me a bit of “The Tell Tale Heart” where the character is so consumed by guilt that it takes over his mind.)
He finds this very troubling as thus far the boy has primarily taken after his mother by mostly looking White. Given how their society functions, the narrator fears the possibility of his son starting to look more Black, and more specifically, Black like him. Penny is fairly unproblematic and seems to love the narrator for who he is and her son as well. I think the narrator also genuinely loves Penny for who she is. But given how consumed he is with his son not appearing to be any kind of Black, you can’t help but wonder if Penny’s physical appearance as a White woman might not have been a factor in him pursuing Penny as a romantic partner.
Despite her efforts to the contrary, there are these repeated instances of the narrator attempting to apply the bleaching cream to his son. And things only get worse when he gets his hands on some bleaching cream that’s especially strong which burns and irritates Nigel’s skin. Sadly, this has been going on since Nigel was around five years old. Yet, he’s getting older and beginning to think more independently and starts questioning things which leads to him becoming resistant to having these creams applied to his skin because they cause him pain.
The narrator goes into more detail about his reasoning for having his son use the bleaching cream. It’s incredibly flawed logic but helps to provide some context. If you think of the problems and issues that plague the Black community in the present, they still exist but have gotten even worse with time. The different statistics that you hear rattled off in the present are even direr.
Under the guise of combating these issues, various government rules and safeguards have been implemented. But the reality is that most Black people are living within a system that’s even more oppressive than our current society. It’s crazy to read but not far-fetched as variations have taken place in America and things of this nature have occurred in other parts of the world. For example, the narrator has to get a White person to vouch for him to vote. And the irony is that the White person he gets to vouch for him is his college buddy who is a mess and a drug dealer, the least fitting person to be a character reference.
Nigel is biracial but the narrator is a fully Black man who has grown up in this dystopian world. He cares about his son and knows all too well what he’s at risk of having to face in the world. And with that in mind, he wants to protect Nigel and make his life a bit easier. The narrator’s misguided solution is to try to get rid of his son’s brown spots, really any remnants or indication of him being Black. He’s so focused on the end goal that he doesn’t realize the amount of pain he’s causing his son in the process.
He tries to assimilate socially, financially, and professionally but is unable to assimilate physically because of his brown skin and other features that are considered Black. Though it seems he might have considered this in the past as he notes that his brown skin is too dark for the skin creams to work on him. But he believes Nigel’s light skin might make it possible for him to assimilate physically. The pressure on Nigel causes him to suffer from anxiety and other issues.
Yet, the narrator is suffering as well and he’s popping pills to deal with the anxiety and stress in his own life. It’s a bit of a catch-22 where you can live openly as a Black person and have to deal with the injustices in this society or you can try to assimilate and be miserable because you have to hide so much of yourself. The option to physically assimilate is available but also comes with various internal emotional issues as well as the physical pain of undergoing the application of bleaching creams and plastic surgeries.
The narrator and his boss are in a head-to-head battle against another team for the hospital’s business. Part of their strategy is to impress the client by showing that the firm is an active and positive presence in the community. The narrator becomes involved with an activist organization right around the time that the government and politicians are working to implement even more restrictive rules and regulations. The organization holds protests against these initiatives. But when a bomb explodes it’s automatically blamed on the organization and leads to increased calls for crackdowns on the protests and strict observance of the rules.
People who speak out against the changes that are taking place face harsh consequences. For example, a Black organization wants to have a statue removed but another group wants it to remain in place. When the Black organization holds a protest it draws counter-protestors and the situation escalates. A shootout ensues which leads to a crackdown where the police and FBI go to the area where the Black demonstrators live to search for them. They aggressively raid the community as they try to capture the people believed to have been involved.
It’s unclear which side started the fracas but the Black protestors are arrested while nothing happens to the counter-protestors. Later when the bomb explodes, it’s unclear who set the bomb or what their motivation was but it’s blamed on the activist group. They don’t claim ownership for the bombing but are automatically assumed to be the culprits.
All of this takes place leading up to the local mayoral election and all of the candidates want to appear to be tough on crime. The narrator’s old community had a curfew where residents could not be out of the area at certain times, which was generally Monday to Friday. The current mayor drafts a bill that would expand the hours to include weekends effectively penning residents into the community around the clock. There’s a fence around the community but plans are made to expand the penned-in area by several blocks while also increasing the height of the fence. This means a larger number of people are now penned into this community and have had restrictions placed on their movements effectively stripping away more of their rights.
And so begins this game of one-upmanship between the candidates as they compete to see who can propose the most restrictive laws. During what’s supposed to be a typical press conference where the candidates appear and drop sound bites things go left. One of the challenger candidates is the narrator’s former co-worker from the law firm who left to enter the local political sphere as a means to expand the firm’s political connections within City Hall.
The candidates start out using a lot of coded and passive-aggressive language as it’s become very acceptable to say racist things as long as you’re indirect. The firm’s challenger candidate gets a little too excited during the press event while the incumbent mayor is detailing her new plans. He steps forward and decides to one-up her by calling for even greater restrictions but goes off script and begins using blatantly racist language. It’s dead wrong but he goes on a tirade where he completely denigrates Black people. It shocks those in attendance and watching from home, not because it’s wrong but because he bluntly speaks his true feelings. Given the laws being proposed, many others feel this way as well but they’ve shied away from being as direct.
Taking into consideration the last few election cycles, there’s a bit of parity between this dystopian society and our recent past. There’s a lot of commentary on the current state of things where a lot of the issues that the people are dealing with in We Cast a Shadow are things that are part of our current reality but maybe a bit more over the top. But by setting We Cast a Shadow in the future, the author shows that if the problems which exist in our present are not addressed but instead allowed to fester without any kind of intervention or resolution, this could be the potential results.
The story is certainly fictional but to a degree has a basis in the current status of things. Data points and laws are mentioned in We Cast a Shadow and they’ll be way beyond the present reality but are still things that are discussed in the present or under consideration in some form. The numbers might be greater and the disparities larger but it’s to show how things have deteriorated over the years in the future.
For example, police brutality, the over-policing of Black communities, and disparities in the justice system were among the issues being addressed during the Civil Rights Movement. But these are still major issues in the present so while pessimistic, it’s not unrealistic that these problems might persist just a few decades into the future.
I’ve always found fictional stories like this that have some degree of truth and possibility far more terrifying than any story about a ghost or monster. The horror here is that this really could happen. I swear I’m not a tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist but the point being made is that it’s important to buckle down and address these problems before they continue to evolve and get out of control.
While I love books and movies, I find that I can very rarely get into fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Often the stories within those genres are creative but so out of touch with reality that they lack that human element that I tend to need to connect with a story. That’s not to say that it can’t be done as to a degree We Cast a Shadow is an example of it being done right. It’s in the future but the story isn’t overrun with space-age technology that conveniently solves problems and issues for characters. Instead, there is a greater focus on how people and society have regressed over time to the point of society devolving under the guise of progress.
Witnessing the narrator’s perspective and internal dialogue caught me a bit off guard. The way that he presents himself and the things he wants to do to his son are off-putting. Yet, as the story progressed and I learned more about him and his experiences, it didn’t excuse his beliefs but provided some context. I certainly didn’t reach the point of agreeing with him but came to understand his feelings of desperation for his son.
There were points where I grew frustrated with him and wished that he would show some backbone. Learning more about his childhood growing up in this harsh and oppressive community where he and his family were locked in really explained his tendency to swallow his pride in an attempt to not bring attention to himself. His increasing desperation to assimilate becomes disturbing as the society becomes ever more repressive. But witnessing his internal thoughts and feelings you see how insecure and unhappy he feels inside despite presenting a different face to the world.
Some of the things he does are downright disturbing and would kill most people inside. It’s to the degree where it makes you incredibly uncomfortable. And I was simply reading We Cast a Shadow and hearing about how he was bending and twisting himself to fit into this society that wants no parts of him. Or at least not in his natural form.
He constantly swallows his pride to get by but then we learn that he saw at a young age the harsh consequences for attempting to stand up for yourself even when you’re in the right. As a result, he decided that as much as possible he was going to go along to get along. So especially when being wronged, he tries as much as possible to grin and bear it.
And while the story takes place in the future it in some ways reminded me of the Civil Rights Movement. Sometimes people from the present can judge people from the past quite harshly with regards to how they dealt with situations. But the reality is that hindsight is 20/20 because it’s easy to look back and see the faults and mistakes that were made after the fact in comparison to trying to figure things out in the moment. Growing up in these repressive environments often indoctrinates people into falling in line with the social norms. Those who push back are notable because most people will just go with the flow if there is no obvious support to do otherwise.
It’s like the idea that to achieve and obtain things in life most people need to see examples so they know it’s a possibility. And without the example of standing up for one’s self or in the case of the narrator seeing the consequences teaches people to do everything possible to not draw attention to themselves. In this instance, that means that no matter how wronged, oppressed, or objectified the narrator might feel he won’t fight back. He’s certainly aware of the injustices that he, his son, and other Black people face in their society. But not having any other obvious solutions and knowing just how bad things can get he decides to not fight back.
The narrator focuses on living and surviving within the system rather than pushing for progress or changing the system. We see throughout We Cast a Shadow, the relationship between the narrator and his son. He does things that are incredibly wrong in his view as a means of trying to do right by Nigel. There’s an undercurrent of race but it’s an offshoot of the conversation that a lot of Black parents have with their children about how to deal with the police and move about in society. Instead of teaching his son how to survive as a Black person, the narrator attempts to have his son completely avoid racism by eradicating any traces of him being part Black.
Unfortunately, he ends up alienating his son in the process. Think about trying to hold on to someone. Past a certain point, they might start to feel like you’re suffocating them. It’s one thing when Nigel is very young and the narrator has control over him and can dictate where he goes and who he associates with. But these things become more difficult to maintain as Nigel gets older.
So not only is this a commentary on society but also on how people raise their kids. Sure there are things out there in the world that might harm them and you might want to keep them safe. But if you go overboard and try to protect your kids to the point of keeping them locked away from the world, you might end up doing more harm than good.
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