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book review, books, race, social justice

Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

You know those books you read where you just know what to write in the review? And then there are those books that leave you thinking about the plot and the characters long after finishing, leaving you to process your feelings and thoughts. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle was one of the latter. I have currently rated it 5 stars on Goodreads and my actual rating is probably between 4.5 and 5 stars. Needless to say, I had a very good experience reading this short story and a fantastic and rather troubling first look into Lovecraftian lore.

I am vaguely familiar with the world of Lovecraft, although I do not know much about the universe, monsters, characters, or stories. This may surprise some of you since I am neck deep into the board gaming hobby world. Lovecraft and Cthulhu is EVERYWHERE. Since it is a public domain work, it literally (okay, not literally, but very often) makes it’s way into any and all types of games. I have played a few games with the Lovecraft theme, but other than that… I stay away from it. Enter this month’s #DSFFBookClub book choice: The Ballad of Black Tom where author Victor LaValle rewrites one of his favorite Lovecraftian short stories The Horror at Red Hook, which takes place in LaValles home, New York City.  For context and comparison, I read both LaValle’s novella and H.P. Lovecraft original short.

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First, we have to talk about The Horror at Red Hook. I do not want to make this post about Lovecraft or Red Hook, so I will try to move on as fast as I can. This is not one of Lovecraft’s well-regarded stories and I absolutely agree. The story seemed to drag on (even though it is really short) and progressed and climaxed in a predictable fashion. Lovecraft’s writing was not compelling at all. And that does not even begin to scratch the surface at the blatant racism and discriminatory views written into this story. It is evident Lovecraft had disdain for the multicultural community of Red Hook and blatantly uses it as a background for Suydam, a rich White man, to recruit ‘thieves, murders, and other criminals’ to his Cthulhu-based cult. Lovecraft describes communities of color with some of the most bigoted, outdated, and racist terms and phrases. People of color are disposable to Lovecraft, a means to an end for Suydam. As LaValle grew older, his awareness for the problematic content of Lovecraft grew as well. I know somewhat of what LaValle must have felt… What do you do when a writer/creator you love fundamentally believes in bigoted and racist ideals? Many of these reasons led LaValle to rewrite the story, starting from the perspective and experience of a black man from Harlem.

LaValle delivers big time. And not just in the Cthulhu mythos aspects, but retelling a story originally written within a system of racial oppression. So let’s talk about race first. The main character is Tommy Tester, a hustler from Harlem, later known as Black Tom. Tommy knows how to dress, what to carry, and what to say in order to skirt the police, go unnoticed, and get White folks to part with some money in exchange for his mediocre guitar playing. From the train to the street, Tommy’s experience is dripping in racial microaggressions. LaValle describes passengers on the train asking Tommy if he missed his train stop when he enters into predominantly White communities, White folks telling him not to come around certain burrows anymore, the police roughing him up and taking his money, and last Suydam… Suydam is the very symbol of White privilege in this novella. The way he speaks to Tommy, the way he uses his financial power to influence and recruit people of color to do his bidding, it’s disgusting.

I also found an interesting part of the book talking about and addressing discrimination within the community of color. When Tommy takes his father Otis to the Victoria Society, Otis does not entirely trust the Black Caribbean folks in the establishment. It takes him a while to warm up to other folks of color for something as simple as eating the food they have prepared. I know there is a ‘dark sense’ over the Victoria Society – whether that is real or perceived through racial and ethnic stereotyping is a different conversation. To me, LaValle is highlighting the internalized oppression and ‘in-group’ discrimination we often see within communities of color. I want to highlight this because as a non-black API person, I see often anti-blackness in my own community. We are taught and perpetuate the same stereotypes and oppressive values which benefit White privilege and supremacy.

The second half of the novella is more true to the original story from the perspective of Detective Malone. In Lovecraft’s original, Malone shares Lovecraft’s bigotry and views of people of color and does not really care about all the people Suydam is exploiting. Malone mainly talks about Suydam of “that White guy who lost his way and starting hanging out with those people.” In LaValle’s retelling, Malone seems more sensible, still with oppressive socialization, but I feel like Malone knows these oppressive views and actions by his partner and others are wrong. But as well intentioned as he is, Malone has no clue how to address these issues until it is way too late.

The most harrowing scene in the novella for me is the death of Tommy’s father. I am finding any book which has a person of color, in this case a Black man, get killed by the police for no reason at all is very triggering in today’s racial climate. This scene is the breaking point for Tommy and the beginning for Black Tom. In my opinion, I see Tommy realizing no matter how much he hustles, no matter how good of an impression he has on White folks, no matter how presentable or invisible he is, the systems of power and oppression are still in place against him. The same systems that allowed his father to be murdered by the police. Therefore, he takes up Suydam’s offer with a personal plan to awaken Cthulhu himself in order to be privileged in the new world ruled by the Ancient Ones. A good friend of mine says to me on occasion, “If they keep pushing us down, we have no other choice but to start a revolution.” Black Tom shares the same idea.

Did LaValle successd in subverting the original work by Lovecraft? This is a tough question to answer and I think yes. In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle does not shy away about realistically talking about individual and systemic racism in New York. Tommy’s experience before he becomes Black Tom is not an isolated experience of a Black man in the United States. There are problematic scenes with racist characters and triggering events; however, I think LaValle uses them to his own advantage in storytelling while showing real issues and Lovecraft’s true nature. I would highly recommend The Ballad of Black Tom while at the same time cautioning every reader who might want to pick up The Horror at Red Hook.

Final Rating: 4.7/5

The Ballad of Black Tom

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Discussion

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

  1. as a non-black API person

    API?

    Like

    Posted by Akilah | August 16, 2016, 5:26 PM
  2. Excellent review, Brendon.
    The scene at the Victoria Society you described was one of many several memorable ones in the book. And you’re so right that it was trying to highlight prejudices within POC communities as well.

    I like how you pointed out that Malone may have noticed the wrongness of his partner’s actions, but it’s very telling of 1920s society that he didn’t really feel the need to speak out against it. I also appreciated how this story didn’t glamorize the roaring 20s at all, which was great because I don’t think any decade before the 80s should ever be glamorized x)

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Read Diverse Books | August 16, 2016, 8:08 PM

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