Racism’s Shadow: A Conversation with Maurice Carlos Ruffin

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Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s work encapsulates the obstacles and trajectories that African Americans have to face when dealing with varying forms of racism and his debut novel, We Cast a Shadow, is no different. The New Orleans native places his characters in a world that’s not too far away from reality. Instead of crafting his story with a dark and melancholic tone, Ruffin takes a different route: satire.

Ruffin situates his novel in a society where African Americans live in fenced-in ghettos patrolled by police officers. Because of racial violence perpetrated by the police force more and more black people are turning to a procedure that turns them white. The main character, who remains nameless throughout the story, is one of the many individuals saving up money to schedule the procedure. But the surgery isn’t for him; it’s for his biracial son, Nigel, whose birthmark keeps getting darker and darker every day.

Although this is his is first novel, Ruffin has received various writing awards including the Iowa Review Award and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for a Novel-in-Progress. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, and others.

I had the opportunity to talk recently with Ruffin via Skype about his use of satire in discussions of racism, how the choices parents make affect their children, and the parallelisms of the world in his novel and our world today.

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The Rumpus: First of all, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed We Cast A Shadow. What inspired you to write this novel? Was it a specific event or new article, or did you always have this idea in mind?

Maurice Carlos Ruffin: Well, I had the character already and I was working on an early draft of this, but certainly around the time Trayvon Martin was killed. Like a lot of America, I had to start thinking about what did it mean to be a person of color, specifically a black person, living today. The dangers have always been there. I had a co-worker who said he didn’t see any problems with the murder of Trayvon Martin. This was a white person who I respected a lot. He was actually my subordinate. It made me think about people who would otherwise, you know, just good upstanding folks who just didn’t get it at all. I just thought about what does it mean to be a parent in a situation like America.

Rumpus: The main character of this novel is never given a name. Did you think of a name originally and then scratched that idea during the editing process? Or did you decide early on not to give him one?

Ruffin: Yeah, he had a name initially, maybe in the first year or so in the novel. It’s almost like he asked me not to give his name. He wanted to remain anonymous, to tell the story without being identified.

Rumpus: When I first heard about the book, I immediately thought, Oh, this is going to be like a dystopian novel, one of those drama-types, but after I started reading and saw how satirical it all was, I couldn’t stop laughing. What inspired you to write your novel as satire?

Ruffin: It’s two things: one is the city where I am from, which is New Orleans, which treats everything with a pinch of humor, sort of a wink. It works out red whether it is A Confederacy of Dunces, which is set in New Orleans, back in the 1960s I believe, work from people like Junot Díaz, works by Vladimir Nabokov, which is a really dark but also hilarious. I think they just gave me a way to deal with these really heavy topics without it being completely heavy.

Rumpus: Going off that, I also noticed while you have some very comical moments, you do have some serious, heavy topics. How were you able to balance these strikingly contrasting elements throughout the book?

Ruffin: Initially, the draft was very, very dark, and I think I look to the humor as a way to make it more fun for me to write my stories myself. I think that as a writer I tend to do best if I’m enjoying the work, and if I am enjoying it, the readers are going to enjoy it also. The more I sort of added the humor to it, the quicker the book went.

Rumpus: Like I said, there are funny moments in the novel, but then there’s one quote I really enjoyed that effectively brought back the seriousness of a situation. On page forty-three, we see the narrator, Penny, and Nigel having a family bonding moment in the car on their way to the firm’s retreat. Then there’s a sudden shift as the reality of their situation—an interracial couple with their interracial child—that becomes apparent when the narrator comments on the towns they pass on their way to the retreat. He says, “What would the people in those houses think of a well-dressed Negro, a red-headed beauty, and an olive-skinned boy puttering in a spotless German car? Would a patrolman pull us over?” How important was it for you to add these kind of emotional shifts?

Ruffin: I think that, to me, telling the story that way was an honest way to tell it, because I think that for black folks—people of color in general—you can be having the greatest day of your life and some small thing happens, and it reminds you of your place in a society that’s so full of racism. It may seem abrupt to somebody who hasn’t experience it themselves, but I know in my own life it happens. You feel it. You think about it.

Rumpus: The narrator says, “Nigel’s face, my marital relationship, or the offspring of our union: These shadows followed us wherever we went. Sometimes I felt like we all had birthmarks.” I loved that line because it reminded me of the title and what casting a shadow means. So I wanted to know: what are some of the ways you or someone else has cast a shadow over you?

Ruffin: I think it’s strange that you’re being born in America. I think all of us deal with the shadow. In the book, the shadow has to do with racism in part. I think that it doesn’t matter whether you are a person of color who deals with it and is an activist fighting against racism or whether you’re somebody that doesn’t understand racism and thinks it doesn’t exist. It affects all of us. I think that racism in America degrades all our lives, and so when I say we cast a shadow I’m not trying to point a finger. I’m just saying that we’re all sort of implicated and we’re all complicit in it. Whether you’re a victim or a perpetrator you could have had a better experience in this country during your life if not for racism.

Rumpus: What struck me about Nigel, the narrator’s son, is how unaware he really is of the dangers and/or consequences of the main character putting a skin-lightening cream on him. In your opinion, how do we teach children of color not only the realities of the challenges we face, but also how to love the skin that they are in? Because I can only imagine how confusing it would be to have this cream put on.

Ruffin: Yeah, I mean, look, I wouldn’t recommend what the narrator does and his attitude toward his child’s appearance to any parent. I, personally, was raised by parents who always gave me a sense of pride. I personally never want to be anything other than what I am, which is black. I think that parents do their children a great benefit by helping them love themselves as they are regardless of what their physical attributes are. They should be taught that if the world has a problem with them, that’s the world’s problem, not their problem. Also, to be aware of what’s going on and to pay attention, the same way you would to a mugger on a street, for example.

Rumpus: For sure. I just can’t help to think the ways in which my parents instilled that awareness in me, not just the reality of my situation as a black man in America, but also that I am strong and should love myself. I wanted to know what was that moment for you, when your parents told you that.

Ruffin: I don’t think it was a specific moment. I think it was probably dozens or hundreds of small moments where, on the one hand, having the whole family together I can see the variety of blackness in my family and take joy in the pride of us being together. On the other hand, just small things where they would say watch out for yourself when you go to a certain neighborhood not because it was a poor neighborhood or black neighborhood but because maybe it’s a white neighborhood and you can tell there are cops. When you go to a store, be sure that you can see what the security guard is doing because they might be crackin’ you the entire time. So it’s just things that have aided you over time.

Rumpus: Speaking of the police: can you talk about the ways in which police brutality plays into the theme of casting a shadow?

Ruffin: There’s always been a relationship between, as Ta-Nehisi Coates might say, the control of black bodies [and law enforcement in America]. A big part of this country throughout history has made money by either enslaving black folks, incarcerating black folks, and currently having this system where there are thousands of police, maybe hundreds of thousands of police, I’m not sure, who make their entire lives patrolling poor neighborhoods and sometimes criminalizing the smallest acts. We all know about the fact that a black person who smokes weed is probably going to go to jail versus somebody who is not black who may just be let go with a warning and not even given a citation. Statistically, we know, for example, thanks to Michelle Alexander, that blacks and other folks use drugs the exact same amount, so the question is why is a certain part of society focused on like that. It’s probably economic. I think that it’s racial. I think it’s white supremacy. It’s all of those mixed together to create these sort of vicious forces in the book that is not that far from the one we have today in the world.

Rumpus: Definitely. I enjoyed Penny as a character as well, because she’s put into that situation of reality, and so I thought it was really neat how you integrated her white privilege but then she’s fully aware of the reality to the society and how it affects her husband and their child.

Ruffin: Thank you for that. I like Penny a lot. She’s one of my favorite characters in the book. Her story is a perfect example of how racism can affect everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or whether you are an activist or not. Her life is affected by all of these events.

Rumpus: Exactly. So I want to point out something that was relatively minor in the story, but I thought it was really interesting how you went about it: I’m curious about the Plums, a drug that the narrator uses at various points in the story. How does this drug play a role in the book? Does it help or hinder the narrator in reaching his goal of getting Nigel the surgery?

Ruffin: Anybody who is experiencing emotional difficulties is going to try to find a way to compensate for it. Sometimes we do it in healthy ways like eating better and exercising, but sometimes it is drugs and/or alcohol. The extreme pressure that the narrator experiences from racism, from his economic pressures, he needs something, and he is provided with these Plums, which are a combination of PCP or maybe cocaine or something like that. It takes him out of the moment so he doesn’t feel so bad, but strangely enough it causes hallucinations. I think that for some people of color sometimes, the craziness that you see in the world with racism is almost like hallucinating, like, did I really just see somebody try to arrest a child for selling water?, and those types of things. It matches up very well with the reality of the story he’s experiencing.

Rumpus: I want to go back to Nigel again. We talked about his innocence in reference to the skin lightening cream, but throughout the story, I couldn’t help but to think about the narrator’s ignorance to the psychological effects of turning his son white. What are some of the ways in which ignorance factors into skin bleaching/lightening in the black community?

Ruffin: That’s a great question. I thought a lot about that because if you look around the world today, not just for black folks but with people in places like India and Korea, they all use skin lightening cream. It’s almost like this… I don’t want to say mass hallucination, but it’s almost like people are doing it without thinking about it. I had that question also: how does it affect the mentality of the person, and a community, when so many people see it as a normal thing to try to change your skin color or change your hair texture or change your facial structure? I don’t have an answer for that. The novel does a good job raising that question, but the answers are out there for us somewhere.

Rumpus: There’s one paragraph that I really enjoyed when the narrator is talking about how Supercargo had to cut his dreadlocks when he was in jail. The narrator says, “Although I believed that dreads were a way to draw unwelcome attention from the authorities—clearly what happened here—I knew Supercargo took great pride in his locks.” Then he says, “I grabbed his shoulders and gave him a half-body hug. ‘I’m sorry.’” Can you just talk about a little bit more and maybe discuss how that’s translated in today’s society?

Ruffin: I think I have heard people of color often criticize other people of color about their aesthetic choices and how they present themselves to the world and they’ll say, “why do you wear baggy pants?” Or “why do you have dreads?” I think we can all recognize that we should have the right to appear how we want to appear in the world, to have this freedom over our bodies and our appearance. The narrator may not approve of Supercargo’s dreads, but because he cares about him he can see the pain that was inflicted on him by taking away his hair like that.

Rumpus: Lastly, what do you hope your readers gain from reading your novel?

Ruffin: I think most people in America have questions about why we have so much racial strife in this country. We had all these periods of people saying, “oh, it’s gotten better, we solved it,” and then things go back to the way it was. I hope people read my book and get inspired to take a personal journey into other books, into films, scholarly research, and talking to people who are not like them so they can broaden their perspectives. I think that the solution to these problems of racism comes with all of us coming together, particularly white folks, and using that understanding to change policies, education, the medical system, the police system. When we change the systems, that will solve a lot of the problems. Hopefully, the book will inspire people to head in that direction.

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Photograph of Maurice Carlos Ruffin © Clare Welsh.


J. Isaiah Holbrook is a first-year MFA fiction student at Oregon State University. Isaiah has been published in Adelaide Magazine and Delta Epsilon Sigma Journal where he received first place in short fiction in their national writing contest. His other publications are featured in Saint Francis University's literary magazine Tapestries. You can find him on Twitter: @tizzy_st_james. More from this author →