It’s telling that my impressions of We Cast a Shadow have changed in small, but important, ways since I first read it months ago. Set in the near future, very little in this novel distinguishes the technology of its world from the present. The separations instead lie solely in the realm of the socio-political: this is 2018 or 2019, acutely augmented. Racial and economic tensions are not just in the background of the novel’s America: they have come fully into the open, with laws that overtly treat races differently based on the lie of safety and security for “all.” People of every walk of life have largely become resigned to it, have given up—even those progressively active in their past. Surely, I thought, things would never get this bad, such normalization and societal complicity.
Since then we’ve seen the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others. The US President and many of his followers have ramped up their racist provocations. The resurgence of the #blacklivesmatter movement, and resulting conversations about race, have illustrated just how shockingly close We Cast a Shadow sits to reality. In actuality, the novel’s plot is no more absurd or preposterous than today’s news.
The novel’s unnamed narrator and protagonist yearns for nothing more than a successful future for his biracial son, Nigel. Most fervently, he wants Nigel to be free from the scrutiny and adversity he has himself faced as a Black man. Nigel’s grandfather, meanwhile, was imprisoned for failing to keep his inherently “threatening” appearance in check, his anger controlled; Nigel’s father has tried to raise his son in a way that would protect him from this suffering.
In fear thus born from the past and a volatile present alike, the narrator registers Nigel for an expensive, experimental “demelanization” procedure, to whiten the darkening patches of skin that mark his son for risk. These actions gradually lead to estrangement from both his wife and son, and also to an increased reliance on drugs. But his resulting isolation and addiction only intensifies his efforts to sacrifice his own happiness and future for the perceived benefit of his son.
The underlying condition of this future America compares accurately with the nation’s racist past and present. Laws have existed, and do exist, that created and perpetuate inequalities. They’ve become such an integral part of the fabric of our society that to many they have become the normal, and we’ve become resigned to human plight. We Cast a Shadow serves as a reminder of the ways in which that might still continue, and of what we hold to lose should we not work very diligently to reverse our outlook and societal course.
Others have extensively discussed this novel, Ruffin’s debut, by focusing on its theme of race and its allusions to Ellison’s Invisible Man. I can only add my voice to many of theirs in praise of its balanced style and tone in dealing with this theme. Ruffin’s voice is daring and earnest, biting, yet unpretentious. Moments of horror are combined with comedy, so that in a short span the reader goes from a chuckle to concern over why that seemed funny, from noticing a surreal absurdity to the realization that for some people this is terrifying reality. The power of this prose becomes evident as early as the novel's first chapter, which could work phenomenally as a short story on its own. In it, the narrator attends an office costume party for the law firm he works at. Though dressed as a Roman centurion, others still mistake him for waitstaff. His few fellow African American colleagues come dressed as Black stereotypes, abasing themselves to entertain the partners in power with “good cheer”:
My frenemy, good ol’ back-slapping Riley, was bent over a table giving the managing shareholder… a foot massage. Sweat made Riley’s bald head glow. He looked like a scoop of chocolate ice cream melting under the parlor lights. Riley was dressed as a parish prison inmate, which rankled my sense of propriety. They saw enough of us dressed that way in news reports. However, I had to admit it was an impressive getup. He wore a Day-Glo orange jumpsuit, and even a fake chest tattoo. He carried a clinking leg shackles slung over his shoulder, as if ready to reincarcerate himself on request.
Riley was working the old fart’s feet, feet so gnarly they seemed like roots ripped from the field behind the mansion. He dabbed his dome with a handkerchief. Was a promotion and bonus worth the kind of humiliation [he was] undergoing? Confetti rained down on the junior shareholders in the adjacent parlor. You betcha.
Considering the cost of the procedure he wants for Nigel, the narrator concludes that his centurion costume is “the equivalent of glower.” He decides that Riley has it right: the shareholders “want subservience”:
There were many unknowns in my pursuit of happiness, but one thing I understood: Law firms… didn’t hire, let alone promote angry black men… If I was going to win, I would have to demonstrate I was willing to give them exactly what they wanted.
In the mansion where the party is held, the narrator finds garments of a “Zulu chief” amongst a collection of costumes belonging to the father of the mansion’s owner. The narrator removes his centurion costume, dons the headdress, leg tassels, and loincloth, and walks with a spear in hand back into the party. He’s greeted by applause and the start-up of congas by the Afro-Cuban quartet hired to play at the party. He dances.
… I couldn’t see myself… [but] I would have seen a skinny, nearly naked Negro in a sumo squat, flapping his arms and legs as though they were on fire. People laughed and imitated my movements. Flashes popped… Every time I raised my spear, they cheered louder. The higher I raised it, the louder they roared.
And then suddenly the music shifted – like a runaway tour bus transitioning from cliff to air. Silence… Somewhere in the room a camera clicked twice … The loincloth had come undone, and I was naked as a peeled egg.
In shame, the narrator flees the party into a surrounding field. After all the humiliation he has just endured, only nakedness has brought embarrassment.
With all of the attention on its theme of race, the importance that fatherhood plays in We Cast a Shadow has sometimes been left aside. The title refers as much to genetics, and parental nurture across generations of a family, as it does to the legacies of a society through centuries. Though race relations form the backdrop of the novel, its core emotional content, and ultimate resolution, lies apart from any satire on the politics of skin color. Ultimately—in an implicit rejection of the segregation and racialisation of the society in which it is set—Ruffin’s tale is also about something more universally human: the power and flaws of human love, the devoted protection of offspring that can become blinded amid the best intentions.
The narrator acts within the confines of experiences and memories formed by how his own father had behaved in response to adversity. He has become willing to take any step necessary to protect Nigel from having a childhood and manhood like that which he has endured. In turn, Nigel grows up with experiences and memories of the mistakes of his father the narrator, and he reacts in similar fashion of rejection and extreme desperation to be anything but what dad is like. As Nigel matures, his fractious relationship with his father leads him down an independent path to other influences and mentors, toward a different view of engaging with a broken, tumultuous society. The narrator’s harsh protection of Nigel ultimately becomes reflected back upon him:
I was astonished. My son was brilliant and wily, of course, but only a child. I never imagined him using his intelligence against me, even if only for a second. It was an inversion of our relationship. It was I who was supposed to clobber him at chess or embarrass him with feats of manly strength. It was my job to show him how cruel and uncaring the world could be, so that he would toughen up. Not vice versa.
The familial perpetuation of dysfunction serves, then, in its own literal sense, but also as symbolism for those broader issues of perpetuated racial divides, and economic disparity, that feed back and forth between each other.
We Cast a Shadow may be a difficult book for many to read. The characters are hugely flawed, and the dystopian setting may also rest too close to present reality for comfort. However, Ruffin’s novel is not about making one comfortable or content. Indeed, its themes demand that one not ever feel comfortable. And it’s important to feel that way sometimes, even in the books we may read for “entertainment.” As part of that huge dystopian branch of speculative fiction, We Cast a Shadow rests at that perfect spot to create discomfort in its troubling familiarity, while allowing room for imagination and the consideration of the potential for things to proceed differently. Ruffin’s bold, cautionary tale reminds readers that those differences might be built both at the level of society—and at the level of one parent and their child.