Welcome to Diversity in Sci-Fi! Today we are reviewing We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, a satirical dystopian novel about a Black father who wants to turn his biracial son white through an experimental medical procedure.
Title/Author: We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Summary: In the not-so-distant future, race relations have deteriorated to the point where scientists have invented demelanization: an expensive procedure that turns Black people white. The unnamed, Black narrator grows increasingly desperate to afford the procedure: not for himself, but for his son, who is biracial. Over the course of the novel, the narrator's mission is clear: he must get rid of his light-skinned son's growing dark birthmark, in order to keep his son, and his son's children, "from ever being black like me."
Book Format: eBook (also available in print and downloadable audio)
Length: 323 pages
Race is front and center in this stinging satire that uses exaggeration and ridicule to expose racism and prejudices. A white woman is referred to as "one of the good ones," even though she admitted to the narrator that "she sometimes fantasized about wearing blackface and going on a crime spree." Penny, the white wife of the narrator and mother of their biracial son, admits that she likes a famous singer's music more ever since the singer got her lips thinned, a nose job, and her skin bleached. Even women of color aren't exempt from showing prejudice. An Egyptian woman talks about a childhood visit to Mauritania and the "savages" she met there, not three pages after she waxed poetic about the beauty of brown skin. The most damning offense, however, is committed by the narrator himself. As a Black lawyer whose white-led firm only uses him to make the organization more palatable to their clientele, he wants a better life for his son. In his mind, the only way to do that is by quite literally turning his son, Nigel, white. His desire for his son to never experience the injustices that he experienced is more than understandable. He wants his son to be perceived not as a black man, but simply as a man. To him however, "a man" means "a white man." The narrator is blinded by his own internalized racism. He refuses to let his son call himself Black; he refers to Black empowerment, racial righteousness, and resistance as filthy propaganda; and he is unyielding in his belief that subjecting Nigel to a painful procedure to turn him white is the right thing to do. All that said, I found the final two chapters satisfying with regards to both the narrator and Nigel's fates.
There is no representation for LGBTQ+ individuals in this book, which is perfectly fine. There is a laser focus on the relationships between a Black father, his son, and the dystopian society they live in. There doesn't need to be any queer characters given the novel's scope.
There are very few likeable characters in this novel, women included. I've already mentioned some of the more detestable comments made by female characters above, so I'd like to focus on two of the more prominent women: Penny, the narrator's wife, and Araminta, Nigel's childhood friend and eventual girlfriend.
Penny is a white woman, and as we have seen, she isn't exempt from being casually racist. However, she is vehemently opposed to demelanizing Nigel. She recognizes the abusive and coercive nature of the procedure, which, given the context of this dystopian society, is commendable. When the narrator makes Nigel use skin-lightening cream on his dark birthmark, he has to go behind her back. When she finds out, she is righteously furious at him and makes him promise never to use it on him again.
Araminta, a dark-skinned young girl, is quite possibly my favorite character in the novel. Proudly and unapologetically dark-skinned, Araminta is the savior Nigel needs. She helps him break free of his father's control and to love his skin, birthmark and all. She is independent, living on her own from a young age, and she teaches Nigel the value of freedom and agency. While she is mostly defined by the context of her relationship with a boy and not as her own person, this is understandable given the book's point of view. The book is written from the perspective of a father obsessed with "saving" his son. Araminta, in his eyes, is almost invisible. In fact, when the narrator tells Nigel about an instance where he found Nigel sitting alone in a lake, his son shakes his head and tells him that Araminta was right beside him. Araminta, for all of her fierce independence, blends into the woodwork whenever the narrator looks at her. He even strips her of her name, simply calling her "The Pest." It's a powerful portrayal. By placing a Black girl in the center of this dystopian society, the author highlights how Black girls and Black women are so often invisible in our own society.
Wow. This was an incredibly timely read. While the society in We Cast a Shadow is a dystopian society, it's easy to see the parallels to our own society. We live in a society where skin-lightening creams are sold in every drugstore; where colorism is rampant both inside the Black community and outside of it; where even the most woke individual will unwittingly commit microaggressions. This book is enraging, but it is extremely effective at pointing out how people today aren't all that different from the people in this futuristic society. This is literary sci-fi at its finest. Recommended for readers—especially white readers—who are looking for social justice in their sci-fi.