MAY 15, 2019
IN THE WORLD of Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow, an expensive cosmetic surgery is increasingly popular — one that promises to remove all markers of Blackness from the patient — to whiten the skin, whittle the nose, and thin the lips. Like the plastic surgery of our world, the early adopters are celebrities. The narrator tells us that the poster child of the procedure, a ubiquitous pop star, “had been a black girl from Baltimore. Now she looked more or less like a Greek woman.”
The novel’s setting is the American Deep South in the near future — an America that has become even more unsafe for people of color. The “de-melanization procedure” is just one of the hydra-headed manifestations of racism in this future, and it becomes the narrator’s dream for his biracial son. The narrator becomes obsessed with his son’s birthmark, “his stain.” As his son grows, the narrator watches in terror as “the birthmark colored from wheat to sienna to umber, the hard hue of my own husk, as if a shard of myself were emerging from him.”
The narrator fears, above all, that his son will be seen as a Black man, just like him, in a world he knows to be “a centrifuge that patiently waits to separate my Nigel from his basic human dignity.” This riotous novel details the farcical lengths this father will go to in order to afford the surgery and save his son from the fate of Blackness while simultaneously hiding his mission from his wife. The novel straddles many modes of storytelling — adventure story, family drama, political satire — but it shines because of the jocular voice of the narrator, a man who, Ruffin says, became his unlikely “tour guide in American history.”
JOSELYN TAKACS: What was the seed of the novel, and where did it come from?
MAURICE CARLOS RUFFIN: I think any writer is trying to decipher the code of what is happening in our society. So certainly for me, it was seeing racialized incidents in America — events like the death of Michael Brown, and later Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, and so many other people. I was trying to figure out why these things keep happening, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Once I figured out who this character was and what he cared about most, the rest fell into place.
When did the birthmark come into play?
I believe a lot of things exist subconsciously as you’re writing. In an earlier draft of the novel, the son had a sickness that wasn’t a birthmark. But just before I started writing the novel, I had taken a literature course, American literature from the 1860s, and I was reminded of this story I’d read, “The Birth-Mark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This, in turn, reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Sula — Morrison has a lot of symbolism attached to Sula’s own birthmark in the novel. I saw that this child would have something similar to that, and it would become a center of the plot and of the book.
It becomes such a compelling allegory for how people of color are treated in America.
Yeah. For people of color, and especially Black folks, oftentimes just existing is criminalized, pathologized. I think you can see in the novel, the various characters, including the secondary characters, have different attitudes about how they pathologize “Otherness.” I think the birthmark is just a way of making this succinct and direct.
You can tell that you’re having some fun as you’re writing this. I wrote down some lines that I just thought were hilarious. Like, “In my thinking, the entire south beyond my hometown was just one sprawling countryside of ectoplasmic Colonel Sanderses on horseback chasing runaway spirits until the Rapture. Hardly my idea of a refreshing getaway.”
Oh yeah. And it’s the narrator. He definitely deals with a lot of his pain through humor. Sometimes it’s sarcastic. Sometimes it’s direct humor. But I think that that’s his honest way of observing what’s going on without letting it destroy him. Some parts of the book can get very heavy, and he sort of leans away from it.
I also think it’s so significant how you portray generational responses, or strategies, for coping with racial inequity. The narrator’s parents were activists, but the narrator wants to assimilate. The narrator’s grandfather had his own mode of moving through the world.
I think that made sense to me naturally because in my own life I’ve had the pleasure of watching different generations of people respond to oppression. We’ve all had to respond to America as it existed at a given time. In the grandfather’s voice, you can hear the frustration of spending 99 years of his life, and he hasn’t seen enough change. It’s really hurt him, you know?
I feel like my parents’ generation as well as young folks now have very specific ideas about the necessity of direct action, mobilizing, going out and protesting to get attention paid to what was going on. My generation was one that was more laid back, thinking, “We’re making progress. We’re just gonna push in these strategic areas to improve things.”
I will say that I admire people now in their 20s and their teens even because they have this mentality, for the most part, of self-love, and not allowing yourself to be destroyed by these stereotypical ideas. The narrator’s son, Nigel, is fortunate to have this mindset, his mom has this mindset, and it’s the idea that people had in the 1960s, in the Black Power movement that “Black is Beautiful.” You know, “Don’t let anybody tell you just because you have dark skin and a broad nose and thick lips that you’re not one of God’s beautiful creations.”
Speaking of the Black Panther movement, there is an activist group, ADZE, who start out organizing for the benefit of the community, only to be labeled as terrorists by the government. I recognize some similarities between them and the Black Panthers. What role do they play in the novel?
The narrator really wants to avoid the fight as much as he can, so there had to be somebody in his reality who was fighting directly — going on the offense. There is a great history of nonviolent resistance in America, but there’s also a history of violent resistance as well. I think it was important to represent the idea that sometimes you’ve got to go out and fight. Literally go out and fight to protect yourself. Early in the book, as one of the characters points out, ADZE never does anything to hurt anybody. It’s just their presence that creates a panic. Where people were frightened, they run away, and in the process, people get hurt. I think Blackness can be so frightening based on ideas provided by the media. And sometimes the government has not been very judicious in how they react to what they see as instigators.
As I was doing research for the book, I was reading about farming techniques on the African continent, and one of the things I came across was this tool called an adze, which was used for thousands of years throughout Africa, the Near East, and the Middle East. When I saw that, it sort of clicked. I thought, “There is gonna be this group that is opposing what’s going on —tilling the soil to make a better crop, so to speak.” Then I thought, “That’s a good name for it.” Meanwhile, here in New Orleans, I kept seeing graffiti tags saying that same word. I can’t remember if I saw the tags first or read about the tool first, but I kept thinking about resistance, and for some people, graffiti is a type of resistance.
The women, like the narrator’s wife and mother, seem like a moral center of the book. Were you conscious of this while writing?
The women in this book, especially Mama, play a huge role in tipping us off on where the narrator has lost his way. Maybe it’s difficult to portray what’s historically a stereotype of the strong Black woman character, but I will tell you that as a man raised by a wonderful mother and a grandmother — you know, I had my father in the picture as well — that the strength of those women and my Aunties and others in my life was real. I see it so much.
The father in the novel, however, is not in the picture. He has been locked away in a prison called Liberia. I wondered if the prison had some relation to Angola Prison in Louisiana?
In terms of the naming conventions, I wanted the place names in the novel to have multiple levels of resonance. We have Angola Prison here in Louisiana. Until very recently, we were the most incarcerated state in the nation — we’re number two right now, which is still not that great. The prison complex within this state just gobbles up young Black men and women.
The history of Liberia as a country, for whatever reason, is not taught all that much to people in America, Black or white. Liberia was founded as a nation for Black folks to free themselves. The premise was, “If you want to escape this racism, go to Liberia and live as a person with complete self-hood.” And the idea to have a prison named after this place that’s designed to be free — there’s a clear irony to it.
Many things that happen in the book are echoes of things that have happened in the past. In the novel, there’s the Dreadlock Ordinance, where they cut off Black men’s hair when they go to prison, which is directly related to the ordinance in the 1800s to forcibly cut the queue of Chinese people, which was a sign of personal respect in their culture to have that hair. They would say, “Well, you’re Chinese, obviously you’re dirty, we’re going to cut this off.” This sort of cruelty that has existed throughout US history toward people who are “Othered.” It became a part of the way that I use words in the novel.
In the future world in the novel, American society is sliding backward, becoming more racist. You describe a process gaining popularity among people of color: de-melanization, or “a scrub.” Where did that come from?
If you’re a person of color in America, you pretty quickly realize how heartbreaking it will be for you. And so, a lot of people of color have different strategies for how to defy that danger, whether it’s standing up and protesting, or writing about it, like I do. And I think that for some people throughout history, there have been different ways to assimilate. I hadn’t really noticed, for example, that many Black performers in the 20th century, men in particular, straightened their hair. I’m thinking of Nat King Cole and Little Richard, but I could go on and on. We see celebrities like Michael Jackson who’ve had their skin lightened. We’re getting to the point where, with CRISPR, we can change genes. There’s this film Gattaca starring Ethan Hawke where, in the future, if you’re not this genetically perfect person, you don’t have any rights in that society. Those ideas were colliding in my mind.
I should say that there’s a thread of Black American literature from satire to straight literary fiction that encompasses this. There’s George Schuyler’s Black No More and Charles Chesnutt’s short stories and many other pieces by Black authors that have touched on this idea of fitting in however you can, whether it be through technology or magic, or whatever.
Yeah, I’m thinking of Nella Larsen’s Passing too.
Why set the novel in the American Deep South in the future and call it “the City”?
I thought that, when the setting is very specific, you can discount it. Like, “Oh this is set in rural Alabama? Well, obviously, that’s just how they are there.” Even outing myself, you know, because I’m from the South. [Laughs.] I’ve had this idea throughout my own life that the South is clearly so much worse when it comes to racial justice, but by thinking that, I was ignoring the works of people like Richard Wright, who would say, “Look, in the South Side of Chicago, it was just as bad.” Maybe there wasn’t hunched-up slaves, but you can see how, through housing policy, and the way people were treated economically, these systems were designed to disenfranchise people of color.
From sea to shining sea, or in the Deep South — as you’re reading, you can imagine this happening in your own neighborhood.
What was hard for you when you were writing this? Were any sections of the book that were particularly challenging to write?
I saved the backstory of the book — the narrator’s father’s story and the racial history of this alternate reality — for last because it was painful to write about. And then there is a period in the narrator’s past, which is almost our present, when there were riots going on. People have asked me, “Did you predict this would happen?” I wrote this before the 2016 election. Since then, we’ve had Charlottesville and these guys with their tiki torches, and Mother Emanuel Church where nine African Americans were shot. My response was, “No, I didn’t know. But I do know, based on our history, that they tend to happen.” It’s baked into our American cake. These events will come back until we’ve finally addressed them in a real way. And we haven’t done that.
To ask, then, an impossible question — how do we reckon with this as a society?
I’ve said this many times recently because I think it’s important to state. I love America. I love our ideals. The more that I think about my own ancestors who were activists and protestors, who fought for their rights, it makes me proud that in this country we’re not being shot for our ability to state our case. I think one of the great failings of the country is in education. We don’t teach our kids detailed and difficult history. In Germany, those kids learn about the Nazi era, and they made a decision as a culture to avoid repeating those mistakes by making sure those kids know exactly what happened and why it was wrong to best avoid repeating that. In America, the story often is, we had slavery and then we fixed it. Obviously, when you see the things that have happened in recent years, you go, “Well, if we fixed it, how are these things happening now?” The answer is we haven’t fixed it, and we haven’t addressed racial injustice.
What I’d like to happen is for readers, after reading this book, to be at least curious to acquire knowledge they don’t have now. I don’t care what side of the blue-red spectrum you’re on. I don’t care what news shows you watch. But I do hope that you take a moment and go out and find a book by an author you wouldn’t normally read about race in America and about American history.
I wonder what you learned about yourself or about Blackness or about the world at large. Did you feel a change as you were writing, or when you were finished?
No one has asked me that. Now I’ve heard other African Americans say — and I’ve heard Africans from the African continent say the exact same thing — if you grow up in a community where most of the people in your life are Black, you experience a lot less racism than you would in other circumstances. I grew up in New Orleans East, which is pretty much an all Black and Vietnamese community. It’s a huge area, like 30 percent of the land mass of the city. I went to Black schools, Black restaurants, Black hospitals, and so for a lot of my early life, I really didn’t see a lot of the ugliness that people see in big cities for example.
By the time I got to this book, this narrator became a tour guide of American history for me, as well as the present-day responses to racism — either creating it or fighting it. I can honestly say that by making this character, communicating with him, coming to understand him very deeply, I learned a lot of things that I wouldn’t have learned about. For example, I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I probably wouldn’t have read without this narrator. She’s talking about mass incarceration. At the time, this was a niche idea that a lot of people weren’t very clear on, aside from a few people who were playing close attention. I’m one of those folks now as a result of my narrator.
You know, sometimes hanging with this narrator would be depressing, so it was important that he had this sense of humor. I feel like he gave me tools and strategies for dealing with what I’ve seen in America today.