Race and Horror in Tananarive Due’s ‘The Reformatory’

The Reformatory

When things go bump in the night, they’re often rampant figments birthed from the minds of young children. The belief in the supernatural and fantastical in horror—ghosts, boogiemen, vampires, and monsters under the bed—have been positioned as childlike reasonings. Simply put, they are not real. The unlearning of this is to ‘put the ways of childhood behind’ and instead come to terms with the fact that evil needs no assistance. It is, does, and thrives at the hands of everyday people. In this way, with the combination of history, horror doubly functions as a mirror and gateway to dreaming of something bigger than ourselves. Horror is as scary as it is hopeful, Tananarive Due knows this.

Due’s latest novel, The Reformatory, is set across the backdrop of 1950s Florida and follows the story of Gloria and Robbie Stephens Jr . 12-year-old Robbie is sentenced to the Gracetown School for Boys after protecting Gloria from the advances of an older white man. The heart of the story lies in Robbie’s time at Gracetown, also known as the reformatory, and the efforts of Gloria to get him out. On the inside, Robbie is both haunted and protected by haints, the ghosts of previous boys who all died on school grounds. While on the outside, Gloria rallies her community, both familial and found allies to set Robbie free. 

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When we speak of reform, we speak of change. Reform schools began as alternatives to prisons, a way to combat the criminalization of kids and teenagers through interventive measures. Though state-run and owned, the private financial benefits were incentivized by the belief that certain people across racial and class lines were more predisposed to crime, leading to actionable cases of prevention being better than cure. In these instances, the way to deter young people, especially young boys, was to assume that they were criminals and to treat them as such, essentially imprisoning them under the guise of betterment.

Between the 1800s and 1900s, a slew of reform schools popped up across the United States including the State Reform School for Boys in Massachusetts and the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The irony of reform schools is their ultimate erasure of rehabilitation, instead creating “a system that today continues to fruitlessly and destructively remove children of color from their communities to give them mercy behind bars.

In reconstructing the Jim Crow South in The Reformatory, elements of the supernatural are communicated through children who symbolize catalysts for change. Young Gloria at 16 possesses the almost prophetic ability to sense people’s life outcomes while Robbie can communicate with and see haints vividly. This is one such way of showing the importance and power of children who are the heart of Due’s story and the source of its devastation. Childhood as a vehicle for story development grants children autonomy while equally showing their need for guidance and protection.

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Similarly, the magical negro moves away from its othered shadow and becomes a full-fledged character that is for us, by us. This contrasts sharply with discrimination as an instrument of horror and layered in the way it operates. For example, Gracetown accepts Black and white boys, meting out abuse, and death to both. Yet, the number of Black boys sent to Gracetown (double that of their white counterparts) is a testament to the racial underbelly of criminalization as well as the fact that nearly a century later, things haven’t really changed. This horror, rooted in reality, is the baseline of Due’s work.

The Reformatory is modeled after the Dozier School for Boys which closed down in 2011. Dozier’s history is also explored in Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys following the discovery of a mass graveyard. As of 2019, an additional 27 bodies of assumed students were found, increasing the count to almost 100. Most of these victims are yet to be identified and were discarded between the school grounds and nearby locations in the woods. In these historical and fictional accounts, there are decades of racism that supercharge their events and are designated as relics of the past. Yet just last month, the bodies of 215 people were found buried in a Mississippi jail, trailing back to 2016 with ‘graves marked only by a metal tag bearing a number’. The count was further increased to 672 following the discovery of unmarked graves.

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This added desecration and callousness is honored by Due in ways that are otherwise absent from history. In The Reformatory, the haints are released and granted peace, free to progress into the afterlife. In her 2003 novel The Good House, the ancestors of protagonist Angela Toussaint are able to find happiness in their life after death. Both stories have respect for the dead as spiritual guides who continue to guide the paths of those who live. This deliberate decision to provide happy endings for Black characters in the midst of pain seems radical because it is. Similar stances have been taken by Jordan Peele in his ending of Get Out which he described as “something that gives us a hero, that gives us an escape, gives us a positive feeling.”

The function of horror as a full-bodied genre means navigating the histories and occurrences that influence the span of what it is. The Reformatory as a novel was a response not only to Due’s mother’s death but also to the loss of her uncle, Robert Stephens at Dozier in 1937. The novel is also an homage. Through Gloria and Robbie as well as their wider family and community, Due celebrates her roots in civil rights borne of her father, John D. Due Jr, an attorney, and her mother, Patricia Stephens Due, an activist. The novel is ‘inspired by the notion that horror fiction could speak to life’s greatest challenges’.

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As such, The Reformatory would still exist without Dozier, as it is ultimately the legacy and action of racism that creates the opportunity to snuff out lives. In both schools, fictional and historical, segregation existed and Black boys were at even more of a disadvantage to their white counterparts. The choice to combine history with the supernatural side of horror is a reflection of reality while also existing as an opportunity to give us relief from an existence that dictates otherwise.



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