Cthulhu vs. Bigger Thomas: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black TomThe 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

H.P. Hatecraft: On Nepenthe and N*ggers


by Emily Balivet
by Emily Balivet

The first H.P. Lovecraft story I read was “The Outsider.” It was, and still is, a fine piece of work. It’s a poetic tale about an introvert who touches a dark “eidolon,” drinks the elixir of “nepenthe” and then joins the ghastly beings who live in the nooks and crannies of time and space. “The Outsiders” is, in addition to a horror story, a mediation on isolation and loneliness. As a closeted student in a mostly white high school, I felt like an outsider myself, and wanted to ride with the ghouls in the chilly, beautiful vistas of other dimensions.

Then I read the next story in the collection, “The Rats in the Walls.” I never finished it, because the narrator had a cat, called “Niggerman.” I have never read any other Lovecraft afterwards. I later found out that Lovecraft was a racist and anti-semite of the highest order, who subscribed to the pseudoscience of eugenics. Lovecraft wrote a poem that is practically talismanic for the White Supremacist crowd, called “On the Creation of Niggers.” Black people, like myself, are described in other stories as being bestial and like gorillas. Apologists will say that Lovecraft was a product of his time. To which I say, no. There were white progressives back then, and white people who even married black people.

I came back to “The Outsiders,” years later, and realized that there is an allegory there. Lovecraft, like the narrator of the story, lived alone in a castle of fear and hatred. He only found kinship with the ghouls and shades in an alternate universe. And what are racists, except ghouls and shades that hide out in some alternate universe where non-whites are subhuman? White Supremacy is the ultimate nepenthe.

*There is a character in the New Scooby Doo Adventures named H.P. Hatecraft.

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