The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle: A Discussion

I was going to discuss the immigrant experience from a personal perspective being an immigrant myself. I was going to talk about the importance of books when you are feeling isolated from everything familiar and the world outside looks and feels alien. What happens when you left the person you were behind and now you don’t just not recognize your surroundings but you also do not recognize your own self.

Then I read The Ballad of Tom Black by Victor LaValle and realized that it would be a perfect book to discuss this month.


Paperback, 149 pages
Published February 16th 2016 by
Source: Library

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

This month, The Book Wars details the immigrant experience from various perspectives. In The Ballad of Tom Black the reader gets to experience very contemporary social issues in 1920s New York. Thomas knows very well the lay of the land. He has experienced the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time; a black man learns the politics of space and presence very quickly. How to sit, stand, and talk–heck, how to even breathe so you are not considered a threat or a challenge. So you don’t attract attention–any kind is the wrong kind. He lives in Harlem where he has found a people, a place to begin but he is young so he has not yet learned to appreciate what he has. He is only 20 years old and brash, not heeding the warnings his father gives him.

Tom delivers a volume of arcane alphabet with the last page torn out to a sorceress who definitely is not going to be happy about being cheated. Alone, that would have had major repercussions but then he also meets a guy called Robert Suydam who talks about sleeping kings, remaking the world, and giving the downtrodden people of New York a chance to tip the balances in their favour. Things happen, people die, magic makes an appearance, and more people die.

The Ballad of Tom Black is contemplative and poignant. It uses fantasy as a vessel to discourse on issues such as police brutality and racism. There is a very revealing scene in the novella when Malone, a cop, while sitting on a stoop in the shabbier side of New York, thinks that he ought to have learned the language of these people. By “these people” he obviously means the immigrants and this scene struck me as particularly important because immigrants are asked to learn the major language of whatever nation they move to and their abilities to speak this language is often the standard by which they are judged. Their own languages and their separate identities are not acknowledged and their diversities are somehow supposed to become muted so they can fall under the umbrella of the national identity.

Tom’s dad moves to New York searching for something better than what he left behind as did many of his contemporaries but he doesn’t find it. The sad truth is that equality is just a word that not even the so-called God-fearing people truly have faith in. No matter how well you speak the language of the nation, there are only certain heights to which you can rise before your difference limits you.

I found this novella to be a thought provoking commentary on how a place and its people can pervert a person. No matter how good your intentions are and how good of a person you are, circumstances can and do change you, sometimes in irrevocable ways.

Tom’s journey from the boy he was to the man he becomes is a bleak one and, unfortunately, a real one (minus the sleeping kings and magic) for many.

Honestly, LaValle has created a memorable character in Tom and this novella, though slim, will leave you thinking and wondering. The Ballad of Tom Black tells a story, yes, but more than that, it relates a grimmer history of abuse and injustice that is narrated alongside the fantastic. The book will leave you angry and unsettled. You have to love literature that moves you in ways you didn’t expect it to.

“So why are you doing it?” Malone asked, sounding like a bewildered child. “If not for power, then what could be the point?”

“I bear a hell within me,” Black Tom growled. “And finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.”

“You are a monster, then,” Malone said.

“I was made one.”