By Chet Yarbrough
We Cast a Shadow
By: Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Narrated by: Don Graham
Maurice Carlos Ruffin (Author, fiction writer, finalist for the PEN-Faulkner Award and others.)
Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s story is about understanding discrimination and where it stands in America today. Ruffin’s creativity as a writer of fiction is on display in “We Cast a Shadow”.
Though Ruffin’s imagination rambles too far at the end of his story, he offers a strong opinion about his generation’s view of 21st century America.
The book title and the author’s characters flood a listener with thoughts of history, worry, and hope. Ruffin writes a story about four generations of a fictional black family. He reaches back to the main character’s grandfather, his father, the main character (a successful lawyer practicing law), and his young son. Worry comes from how far social and economic equality must go to be real. Hope comes from believing America will get there.
Ruffin creates a family in a southern community. The father is a black lawyer struggling for partner in a successful southern white law firm. His wife works in a hospital.
They live a middle-class life in a white suburban community. The son has a birthmark on his face that is slightly darker than the rest of his skin. The birth mark turns darker when exposed to the sun. The father is obsessed with the birthmark and wishes to have it surgically removed to give his son a more even Mediterranean appearance. The boy’s red headed mother views her husband’s concern as an absurd obsession.
The father of the black lawyer in Ruffin’s story is raised in a lower-income black community in the south. His father is serving time in prison. His mother owns and runs a restaurant in which he worked while growing to manhood. His father is highly educated with a PhD received in his 21st year of life. His grandfather is described later in the story and reflects on the age of slavery that gives weight to the author’s perception of America’s generational change in discrimination.
The professional lawyer’s young life exposes him to good and bad influences in a low income, minority neighborhood. He possesses the intelligence of his father and expositive experience to become a successful lawyer. A part of his experience is to use drugs as a way of coping with life’s stress. He is deeply influenced by the loss of his father’s guidance because of an interminable prison sentence based on unequal treatment by the police.
At an annual review of the firm’s lawyers, one person may be promoted to partner, while others may be fired. Ruffin’s main character is neither fired nor made partner but is taken under the wing of an ambitious white woman law partner who promotes him to a newly formed Diversity Division in the firm. The woman’s ambition is to become leading partner of the firm by increasing its revenue with a broader appeal to all ethnicities in the firm’s market. She recognizes the competence and potential of the rising black lawyer.
Ruffin somewhat comically sets this table but prepares one for a meal of many tastes. “We Cast a Shadow” reflects on what it means to be black in America and married to a white woman with a son who has a symbolic birthmark.
The “…Shadow” Ruffin casts is discrimination’s continuation in both black and white America. Discrimination is different today than when the lawyer’s grandfather lived. Through four generations, black perception of discrimination changes from a grandfather who says the way for black folks to get along is by making white America feel guilty for discrimination. In contrast, the lawyer’s father (serving an interminable prison sentence) raises his son to understand he is as smart and capable as any white person. However, due to circumstances of his era, his father is thrown in jail for talking back to the police while standing up for his rights as a citizen of the country. (Of course, this is a part of the unequal treatment that exists in today’s America.)
The jailed father’s son resents the absence of his father despite his father’s principled stand that led his father to jail. In spite of that resentment, the lawyer is shown to feel and exhibit both his grandfather’s and father’s influence.
The lawyer feels trapped by his profession and beholding to white people in the firm. He recognizes (just as his father taught him) he is as good as any lawyer in the firm and better than some.
The generational change between the grandfather, the father of a successful black lawyer, the father and his son show an evolution occurring in America. The lawyer’s son represents today’s generation that rejects his grandfather’s belief, accepts his innate ability and equality, and proffers hope for equal treatment in life that is not based on the color of one’s skin.
The irony of the lawyer’s belief is his obsession with his son’s birthmark. The birthmark is a reminder to the lawyer of unequal treatment in America. The lawyer is discriminating against his own son because of a birthmark that identifies him as something less than white.
In the end, a conclusion one draws from “We Cast a Shadow” is that every parent comes to a point of realizing Glory Gaynor’s truth—“I am what I am.”
I am what I am
I am my own special creation
So come take a look
Give me the hook or the ovation
It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in
Life’s not worth a damn till you can say
“I am what I am”
Every parent makes mistakes in raising their children. This father’s mistake is to obsess over a birth mark without recognizing what is most important, i.e., a parent must love a child, while allowing them to become who they choose to be.