Immediately after this exchange, we learn that the “officer” is not a police officer but a member of a group that runs tactical maneuvers in the nearby swamps — just for fun.
Who gets to feel safe?
“I’m not used to seeing black guys around here,” the officer says. “You can’t be too careful these days.”
The novel is rife with these kind of moments — when the racism feels satirical in its intensity. The narrative then quickly moves on; this is just a thing that happens. While many of these moments are crafted to be funny in their absurdity, they are not handled flippantly; these instances when we meet yet another head of the hydra that is racism ultimately accrue to humanize a narrator who has decided there is no honor in fighting the beast. For the narrator, the world is what it is and he will do anything to protect his son from it. Not everyone in his life agrees with him. His wife, a white woman who believes Nigel should learn to love himself the way he is, and his mother, who tells him, “You losing yourself. Your heart. Your roots,” create a necessary counterpoint. And yet, through a careful marrying of desperation, love and awareness of the world as the narrator sees it, Ruffin makes us understand how it is that this man might have become broken this way.
Who gets to be traumatized?
At any moment, Ruffin can summon the kind of magic that makes you want to slow down, reread and experience the pleasure of him crystallizing an image again. The narrator’s intellectual style also allows for a lot of sentence-level fun. We’re never far from an alliterative flourish (“flaky fried fowl fingers”) or a stroke of sudden beauty (“I grabbed the knob with both hands, a transparent crystal bulb, a dollop of frozen light”) that makes us pause and say, damn, as we realize just how closely the narrator is paying attention to the world around him.
The fluidity of the narrator’s mind keeps us on our toes; we race to keep up with him as his thoughts wind and bend across the pages. He might suddenly remember some grim fact about the state of racial politics as he’s driving in the family car with his son. He is unable to rest, to let his mind wander.
Who gets a break? Who gets to relax?
Through his characters, Ruffin reminds us that human rights don’t have a season. That you don’t compromise on your humanity. That if you do, you risk becoming an agent of oppression. The narrator shows us over and over again what happens when love is pushed out into the world from a source that does not love itself. That kind of love looks and feels a lot like violence.
How does racism shape our ability to love?
“We Cast a Shadow” churns fresh beauty from old ugliness. What injustices have we as a culture come to accept as normal? What are the pitfalls of our complacency? And how can anyone survive this? These questions are essential to America’s growth, but rarely do we see them posed so sharply. Read this book, and ask yourself: Is this the world you want?