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“We Cast a Shadow”

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Pages
Oct 4th, 2022

by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Review by Meredith McKinnie

“Do not dwell on it. After all, the place you dwell is the place you live. Shame is no proper residence.”

The debut novel by Maurice Carlos Ruffin casts a blistering light on the shadowed future of race relations in America. While many authors are concerned with looking backward in search of warning signs of racial regression, Ruffin dares to cast his direction forward. Set in an American city in the not-too-distant future, the narrator, a black attorney working in a prominent almost all-white law firm, is obsessed with his son Nigel’s skin tone. A birthmark on the teenager’s face is darkening and spreading, and a popular doctor boasts melanin treatments to erase any indicator of black heritage. Against his white wife Penny’s wishes, the father secretly begins treating his son to lighten his skin. What ensues is a physical and psychological battle of wills, one in which Nigel and his father confront the reality of being black in this version of America and whether it’s worth the risk.

Ruffin relies on satire to contemplate the unthinkable, yet too-close-to-home conditions. Black people are relegated to certain areas of the city, harassed by the police, prohibited from voting if a parent is incarcerated, and can be sheared on the spot due to the town’s recent passage of the Dreadlock Ordinance. The people are told the extreme laws are meant to protect the community from violence, that inhibiting the freedom of potential troublemakers is for the betterment of all. The problem is that what identifies one as troublesome is beyond a human’s control. As a result, prominent black people resort to mutilating their bodies to achieve esteemed whiteness, a procedure that is promised to lighten the skin of their future offspring. 

The narrator is battling a past and present that continually intersect. He refuses to visit his incarcerated father serving a life sentence due to fighting a police father harassing his mother. His wife Penny detests racism in all its manifestations, but even her vehement activism is shadowed by a white history that blinds her from her husband’s omnipresent fears. Their passionate marriage is marred by opposing backgrounds that keep the two from ever really understanding the other. In the middle is the intelligent son Nigel, torn between two worlds, his white heritage that benefits from the continued oppression of black people, and his black survival instinct to annihilate the oppressors. 

Ruffin’s keen attention to character development and intersecting plot lines make for a fast read, one that propels readers into the narrator’s intense reality. What surfaces is the intense love of a parent, one hell bent on writing the wrongs of his past in hopes for his son’s brighter future. Ruffin shows readers the intense clashing of one’s ideals with one’s options. Maurice Carlos Ruffin is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana and is a professor of Creative Writing at LSU. 

“I sometimes questioned the plausibility of two people so deeply in love ending up as mortal enemies. Maybe love was just the larval stage of hate, the comely caterpillar in advance of the hideous butterfly.”