The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Last week I went to a panel hosted by the National Academies of Sciences called “Identity, Race, and Genetics.”* It featured an author/editor, a PhD Candiate who wrote on the History of Science, a NIH geneticist and a law professor. The law professor–who was also an artist. The lawyer-scholar-artist mentioned the virulent racism of H.P. Lovecraft and suggested that black people lived in Cthulhuscene Period, due to the past and ongoing history of (pseudo)science and the black body. Lovecraftian mythos shows mankind as the inevitable victim of a hostile universe; existing while black (in a hostile/racialized universe) is part and parcel of the Black Experience.
I immediately thought about LaValle’s novella. The book is dedicated to Lovecraft (and H.P. even has a cameo). The Ballad of Black Tom is kind of an answer/re-positioning of the notorious Horror at Red Hook. It’s written from the perspective of a black first generation immigrant grifter and concerns his unfortunate dabbling in the occult. Imagine a collaboration between Richard Wright’s social realist fiction with Lovecraft at his lurid best, and you would have this novel. In place of Lovecraft’s rampant eugenical musing, LaValle shows what it was like to be of African descent in 1920s New York, complete with run ins with the police and racists. The novel compares and contrasts the horror of White Supremacy with the horror of Elder Gods. The reader is left to decide which is worse.
*DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous (DASER) Participants:
Sheree Renee Thomas, World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author
J. Cecilia Cardenas-Navia, Ph.D., History of Science and Medicine, Yale University
Bill Pavan, Senior Investigator, National Genome Research Institute
Michael Bennett, Associate Research Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society + Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University