It’s a myth that life was easier for black people north of the Mason Dixon line during Jim Crow. Charles Thomas Tester, a con man in New York, has to watch his step whenever he leaves the boundaries of Harlem, New York. White people will give him the hairy eyeball and question him on the train. White men will follow him around, waiting to get him in a dark alley. White cops (and they were all white in 1924) will actually reach out and grab his neck before questioning him. It’s rare that a black person would get a chance at revenge. The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle, tells Tom Tester’s story of revenge against the relentless racism all around him with a little help from the Sleeping King.
Tom Tester lives with his father in Harlem, making his way with small cons and busking with his guitar (outside of Harlem, because he’s not all that good). We meet him as he is delivering a book of forbidden knowledge to a little, old lady in a very white neighborhood. Shortly there after, Tom is approached by Robert Suydam who has a plan. There’s something very weird about Suydam and Tom might have rejected the man’s offer if it hadn’t been for the interference of Mr. Howard, a private detective, and Malone, a detective for the NYPD. The two heavies raise the stakes for Tom in a way that made Tom’s and my blood boil.
As I read The Ballad of Black Tom, I was strongly reminded of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. Both writers use Lovecraft’s mythos and pair it with African American history. LaValle plays with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to give this version of New York its magic. He also uses the old blues song “Grinnin’ in Your Face” as a motif to explain Tom’s motivation. The two come together by the end of the book and, even though Tom’s revenge is very violent and gory, I completely sympathized with him.
Because The Ballad of Black Tom is a novella, events clip along ever faster towards an incredible conclusion. I wish this book had been longer, because I want to know more about Tom and his later adventures in the many worlds.