Let’s cut to the chase, this is a book about a black father, whose name we are never given, who wants his son to be white. That sentence describes the narrative, but the book explores why he wants his son to be white. He believes that turning his son white will save him from the oppressive, dominant, racist white society.
The novel is set in the future, but just how far in the future we are never told. What we do know, and the author brings up repeatedly is that racism has gotten worse.
Some dystopian futures seem light years away from our current existence, civilization destroyed, the planet on its knees gasping its last breath. But, similar to Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Ruffin’s future seems to be, although distant, at least a possibility.
The police now have the technology to drive past houses and scan the heart rate of the occupants. Low heart rate indicates drug use, elevated heart rate, fights or struggles. However, it seems that the police only employ this technology on the black neighbourhoods.
In another instance we hear that one of the states has made it mandatory for all black people to have tracking devices surgically implanted.
The father’s reasoning is heavily influenced by his own childhood and he does not want his son to experience the same oppression. The father quotes,
“But when it came to the basics of walking through life as prey, she had no idea. It wasn’t just that Nigel would make an appetizing target for some zombie with a badge and a gun. It was all the little things that were obvious to me. The woman switching from one side of the road to the other. The store owner following him around. The increased scrutiny from anyone with power over his freedom or happiness. All the things that would eat away at his soul and make him wonder why we ever brought him into this world. All the things that would make him me.”
After reading the father’s thoughts you can start to see, that to him, his actions are not ludicrously overreacting. From his thoughts we can start to picture what it must have been like for him growing up, and that he is a father who wants the best possible childhood and life for his son. A childhood and life nothing like his own. A childhood and life in which one would not have to think before each action, an action that could be mistaken and lead to lethal consequences. A childhood and life in which one is not stopped, questioned, and searched just because of the colour of their skin.
The narrative takes the form of a dark satire and is told from the father’s perspective, at times speaking directly to the reader. However, as you get further into the story, the satirical elements seem fewer and fewer and you realise that this is a powerful book about racial identity and conformity.
I have never read any of Ruffin’s other books, but I must say that I love his metaphorical style of writing,
“He seemed impossibly small compared to the man of memory, small-shouldered, small-bodied, small-boned, vulnerable, infinitely vulnerable, like a child on a tricycle during an earthquake.”
“For the first time I realised that his mind was a planet unto itself. During our years together, I’d only caught brief glimpses of that distant world with my telescope.”
This story starts off slowly but quickly picks up pace and gets better and better the deeper you get into the narrative. It builds to a wonderful, and for me, unexpected ending.
The book is all about the father. A father who is trying to provide the best possible life for his son. A father who struggles with his own demons, his own self-loathing, along with a loathing for a discriminatory society, rampant with racism. A society that he knows he cannot change, so his solution is to change himself and his son to conform. But does his son want or need to change?
I think it is impossible for a middle class white person living in modern civilization to truly feel like what it must be like living in the father’s shoes, but Ruffin gives it a red hot go!
Wonderful book. 4 Stars!
Maurice Carlos Ruffin has been a recipient of an Iowa Review Award in fiction and a winner of the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for Novel-in-Progress. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. A native of New Orleans, Ruffin is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.
There is an interview with Ruffin by the PARIS REVIEW here - https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/01/30/element-of-sacrifice-an-interview-with-maurice-carlos-ruffin/