Writing as activism: The Ballad of Black Tom

I thought long and hard before writing this post.

This is for a couple of reasons, the principal of these being that I am white. Because of this, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that my reflections on the novella The Ballad of Black Tom are my own, and come from my whiteness, at least in part. We cannot extricate the parts of our identities, after all. That said, I am also a writer and a writer keenly interested in diverse representation and stories which get to the heart of oppression. The Ballad of Black Tom did both of these things baldly and without pulling any punches. I want to unpack that. And I want to lend my platform to this book, because it is a valuable read, perhaps most especially for white people.

black-tom

All of that said, there will be spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want those, and scroll to the end for further reading recommendations if you must. You are warned.

If you want to read this book first and come back, I encourage it. It’s a novella, so it took me about three or four hours to chomp through at most. I read fast, but it’s not a terribly serious time commitment if you want to bookmark this page for later.

No, the time commitment is in how much you’ll find yourself thinking about it afterwards.

With no further ado…

The story starts with our protagonist, who comes to be known as Black Tom. That is not his moniker at the beginning of the book. Charles Thomas Tester is a young man, a hustler and dealer in the occult, but he only really has his toes in it at the beginning of the book. He is also a black man living in Harlem in a time roughly contemporary with H.P. Lovecraft’s lifetime. This is very relevant, because The Ballad of Black Tom is a Lovecraftian horror. Explicitly so, in fact. The dedication from author Victor LaValle is, after all, “To Lovecraft, with my feelings.” Those feelings, an astute reader will note, are not positive. Lovecraft was many things, and one of those things was an avowed white supremacist. His writings on race are grotesquely controversial. The use of Lovecraft as the model for the World Fantasy Award was recently called into question for just this reason, and the author will no longer be the face of the World Fantasy Award.

So it is fair to say that Lovecraft would be relatively unhappy with the outcome of this novella. No doubt that was the point.

As mentioned, this work is set in an earlier time than ours (my estimation is roughly the 1920s or 1930s). The racism in this book is depicted accurately and appallingly. The response to that racism is equally accurate and equally appalling. It is meant to be. Racism is designed to make men, and women, into monsters. When the protagonist is still referred to as Charles, the young man is aware of the institutionalized and blatant racism that surrounds him, but he still feels that he can escape it. Throughout his evolution as a character, as he loses more and more of his humanity to the machinations of the white characters that surround him, his moniker also shifts. He becomes warped by the hatred directed at him, by the hatred inside of him for those who have punished him just for being, for trying to get ahead. He becomes the monster they wish him to be. This is when he comes to be known as Black Tom. It is only when he has embraced the inhumanity that the white men around him have shoved on him that he gains the power for vengeance.

That power comes to him through the Old Ones. These dark, Lovecraftian gods care little for humankind, one way or the other. But they understand hate well enough, and appreciate it so much that they awaken.

The most disturbing part of this book for me, the true horror story, was the part that was the most real. Charles fully transitions to Black Tom as a result of the murder in cold blood of his sickly father by the police. It is a story all too common in our news today as well. How often do we hear of a black man or woman murdered in their car, in their home? How often is the force used to detain them disproportionate to the crime committed? And yet, the chapter containing this murder is told from the perspective not of Charles, but of the other main character. A detective, his is a white man who, at first, seems to be the better of the white characters presented. That seeming is insidious. This detective does not stand in the way of his comrades as they harass Charles, does not speak up before or after his father’s murder. He, however, does not see himself as a bad person for this. Being inside his head, as a white person, was a profoundly uncomfortable experience. It made me realize just how easy it is to make excuses for the passive kind of racism in myself and in my white friends and family.

I could probably analyze this novella line-by-line and still have things to talk about. The ending itself was a beautiful piece of irony, especially in the way that it tied the timeline thoroughly into our own. LaValle has succeeded in his quest to subvert Lovecraft so thoroughly that it amazes. He has taken a world and concepts that are deeply embedded in the psyche of the fantasy and horror reader, and rendered it salient to our modern times. He has taken a work by a now-dead white man who would have likely disregarded a man who looked like LaValle, or like Black Tom for that matter, and made it about the power and lives and culture of the very people that Lovecraft so easily dismissed. He has used that world to tell the stories of the struggles still faced by black men and women in the United States today. That is powerful magic.

If you are interested in other stories that are based off of the Lovecraft mythos, I invite you to check out Kij Johnson’s upcoming release The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, which she discusses here. I am so excited to read this. And if you’re looking for more feminist/LGBTQ Lovecraftian horror, I recommend Maplecroft by Cherie Priest.

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Author: Amanda J. McGee

I believe in sustainability and ethical living. Food and books are my passions. When I'm not planting a garden or working my day job, I can often be found writing genre fiction.

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