A Conversation on Horrors Past and Present with Tananarive Due – Chicago Review of Books

Tananarive Due is a prolific writer of speculative fiction. Her many accolades include an American Book Award, an NAACP Image Award, a World Fantasy Award, and two nominations for the Stoker Award. She is also a continuing lecturer at UCLA’s Department of African American Studies.

Due’s supernatural thriller novel The Reformatory follows 12-year-old Robbie Stephens and his teenage sister Gloria as they struggle to survive in a Jim Crow era Florida town. They both have a sixth sense, but even the spirits of the dead don’t haunt them as much as the cruel realities of racism that pervade every corner of their lives do. Life is hard. Their mother has died of illness, and their father was chased out of town by a criminal allegation that made him the focus of dangerous hatred in the town’s white community, which is largely controlled by the KKK.

When a white boy from a wealthy and influential family gets aggressive with Gloria, Robbie defends her. For this, he is arrested and sent to the Reformatory—a prison and work camp masquerading as a school for wayward boys. What’s even worse is that inmates at the Reformatory have an unfortunate habit of dying before they can complete their sentences. Gloria sets out to get legal help for her brother, as he learns how to survive as a child inmate. When Robbie’s supernatural ability is discovered, it gets him unwanted attention from a warden more terrifying than the haints tormenting the young inmates of the prison.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Devi Bhaduri

The Reformatory was inspired by the tragic death of a member of your family at the Dozier School for Boys. Could you tell us a little about what happened?

Tananarive Due

This novel is a work of fiction inspired by what happened to my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, but, because he died in 1937, I really don’t know much about his actual life. I learned from the Florida State Attorney General’s office and the University of South Florida that he was allegedly stabbed by another prisoner and died there at the age of 15. 

I attended meetings of survivors [of the Dozier School for Boys] with my father, “Freedom Lawyer” John Dorsey Due Jr., soon after, while we were both mourning the death of my late mother, the civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, in 2012. The more I heard the horrific accounts from these men and read memoirs by survivors, I realized that I wanted to engage with this story—but not as nonfiction. The true story, I believed, was not mine to tell. 

According to forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who wrote the book We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys, 15-year-old Robert Stephens was sentenced to two years at the Dozier School for breaking and entering, and later stabbed by another prisoner. 

For the purposes of the novel, I wanted to make Robert younger and set the story in the year 1950 instead; an era I knew better from the family history I learned from researching Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. I also changed the circumstances of his arrest, so I could better convey the impact of Jim Crow on his family, the Reformatory, and the entire town. 

Devi Bhaduri

The supernatural is integral to many of your works. In The Reformatory, twelve-year-old Robert and his seventeen-year-old sister Gloria have psychic gifts, including the ability to see ghosts, or “haints” as they’re called in the Southeastern U.S. In real life, there is even a shade of blue colloquially called haint blue. It is traditionally painted on the ceilings of porches because it’s thought to keep ghosts from harming the people inside. Southern folklore in particular seems to have a fascination with the supernatural.

Do you think the South has a uniquely close relationship to the supernatural, or have some of us in the North just fallen out of touch with more primal aspects of our culture(s)?  

Tananarive Due

Every region has its beliefs, myths and practices. I believe the “hoodoo” practices and references are more deeply ingrained in our Southern heritage, because so many African-Americans came to the United States through the practice of slavery and then dispersed in the Great Migration. So even people who grew up in Los Angeles or Chicago grew up hearing the stories or learning practices from their grandparents. These beliefs and practices provided everything from medicinal care to emotional healing, so it’s not surprising that they retain their prominence in so much storytelling. 

Devi Bhaduri

In the novel, Robert is still just a boy when he is sentenced to spend half a year at the Reformatory; for an act that would not have gotten a white boy arrested, much less locked up. He and his family had already been living under the constant threat of mortal danger that was Jim Crow. This story is terrifying even before any supernatural events occur! The novel is a masterclass on how systemic racism works, which you are well versed in for a variety of reasons, including being the daughter of two civil rights activists. What do you want most for America to understand about its own systemic bigotry?

Tananarive Due

I really wanted this novel to be in conversation with the present, where the United States flirts with having the highest incarceration rate in the world, or about 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. The large number of Black and brown inmates reflects poverty, yes; but also racism in policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, unfair sentencing, lack of community services, money bail requirements, and our society’s general fear of “The Other.” 

It’s such a big problem that people either tend to ignore it or wallow in helplessness: “What can I do?” Black Lives Matter protests against police violence and police murder are one route to change, but I also learned from my parents’ civil rights stories that working for change can take many forms. So, I wanted to both show the relationship between poverty and prejudice in leading even children to prison and how “benign” bureaucracy keeps injustice rooted in place—but also the big and small ways individuals from several walks of life can try to stand up to the system. Through my father, I met a county sheriff, Morris Young, who has worked to cut down incarceration rates in my mother’s birthplace of Gadsden County, but Sheriff Young ran into resistance from a state system that relies on prisoners as a literal part of the economy.

This was also true at the Dozier School. The University of South Florida report on the Dozier School includes a significant quote from a Superintendent’s letter to his Board of Managers in 1906: “Having so few inmates makes the crops come in slow; I fear we will not finish gathering the corn by January.”

The real-life Dozier School—and the fictionalized Gracetown School for Boys—both serve as microcosms of the injustices in both our criminal justice past and present. The Dozier School is closed now, but incarceration rates for Black people in the U.S. are far higher today than they were either in 1937, when Robert Stephens died, or in 1950. 

I donate to bail funds, immigration funds, and Chicago Books to Women Prisoners, a nonprofit organization that supplies books to imprisoned women. But I also wanted to write The Reformatory to help people learn about the lineage of today’s criminal justice system and how much of that past remains embedded in its practices, as Michelle Alexander wrote about in The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay addressed in her documentary 13th

Most people are more moved by storytelling than by statistics. 

Devi Bhaduri

Although many things have changed since 1950, the threat of America backsliding deeper into white supremacism is ever present. I was reminded of this in a scene where Gloria and family and friends of her guardian Miz Lottie take cover after a truck thought to be full of Klansmen parks near the house. Gloria is quickly talked out of crying and given survival pointers, such as to look for muzzle flashes and to not shoot a white man unless you’re about to die. The terrible “survival math” Gloria and the adults must do in these critical moments is a burden still born by marginalized communities and activists today. What do you think it will take to keep society moving toward progress?

Tananarive Due

Comedians like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy have made jokes in the past about the way horror movies don’t reflect the instincts of Black people, that they would have fled the haunted house at the first problem. That “survival math” is part of the reason those horror characters’ actions often don’t ring true to us: because of “The Talk” from our parents on racism, how to comport ourselves with police, and our grandparents’ stories of running and hiding. We are not generally people who want to move toward strange sounds in the darkness without a weapon saying “Hello?” We have survived (and thrived) through caution and good sense. 

During the Trump era, especially after the appearance of COVID-19, I began to feel an uneasy sense of not really knowing my neighbors, and a slow burning anxiety that strangers might attack us for political or racial reasons. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t have been a shock. 

Today’s times are taking on the perilous feeling, to me, that I heard reflected in my mother’s stories from Jim Crow. The country is taking not toward conservatism but fascism, and I’ve watched as much of the media creates false parallels that result in a desensitization to creeping fascism. Instead of “root it out,” it feels more like “let’s hear them out.” So, police killings continue, immigrants are in cages, and our children are doing shooter drills in elementary school. Meanwhile, “tough on crime” is still the rallying cry of racist politicians—which only feeds the cycles of over-policing and over-incarceration rather than inspiring more community aid.

Even more troubling, to me, is the politicized efforts of the right to try to erase the country’s racial history. Our schools already did a fairly poor job of teaching racial history, but now the same breed of propagandists that were celebrating The Birth of a Nation and erecting statues of Confederate “heroes” 100 years ago are trying to cleanse this nation’s origin story of slavery, genocide and Jim Crow. 

The path forward will take many forms. But it all begins with knowing our history.

Devi Bhaduri

In your writing process, where do you tend to begin? For example, do you tend to start with a character, a premise, a theme?

Tananarive Due

Using The Reformatory as an example, I definitely [knew] the ending first—because my desire to write this novel was rooted in wanting Robert Stephens to have a different story. In much speculative fiction, the premise comes first, i.e. “What if there were a haunted Reformatory?” But very quickly, I need to get a grasp of the character who will be experiencing the premise—why is this the best or worst person, or both, for this experience to happen to? 

Then I need to unpack the character’s emotional journey. What are the obstacles? What’s the desired outcome? What will this character’s growth arc be? In this case, The Reformatory is a coming-of-age story for both Robert and Gloria; for Robert, it’s learning how truly fragile their lives are, and for Gloria, it’s the need to become a fully functional adult, taking actions to influence the outside world, as she advocates for her brother. 

I think my conscious theme was Freedom, but I’m sure other unconscious themes also played a hand. 

Devi Bhaduri

See Also

Do you tend to follow the same process for all your works?

Tananarive Due

The Reformatory was a special case because it took so long to write, at least seven years, so I certainly hope not! The short stories in my new collection The Wishing Pool are a better example of a “typical” process: finding a true-life horror that fascinates and frightens me, adding a supernatural element, and finding the right character to take the journey. 

Devi Bhaduri

In addition to writing fiction, you are also an executive producer of Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, directed by Xavier Burgin and produced by Shudder, and a screenwriter on Shudder’s anthology film, Horror Noire, which adapted some of your work. How does the experience of writing for the page compare to writing for the screen?

Tananarive Due

I first got interested in screenwriting when producers started optioning my novels, and then they got hung up at the script stage. Naively (at the time, anyway), I thought I would be welcome at the table if I learned how to write scripts. I took up screenwriting in earnest after marrying my husband, Steven Barnes, who already had produced scripts for the ‘80s versions of “The Outer Limits” and “The Twilight Zone.” 

Despite some gains and script sales, it was much tougher to get traction before Get Out and Black Panther, which really opened the door to Afrofuturism in Hollywood. I finally got my first co-credit on Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone” and then my first adaptation in Shudder’s Horror Noire anthology movie, which was a follow-up to the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

I was very lucky to be asked to serve as an executive producer on the original Horror Noire, but I did not write or pitch it. It had a great team with Ashlee Blackwell, Danielle Burrows, Xavier Burgin and Phil Nobile Jr. It was Shudder’s first original documentary, and it had a great impact on horror fans. I would love to see a follow-up. 

Devi Bhaduri

Your fiction is featured in a collection of short horror stories curated by none other than horror filmmaker Jordan Peele—Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror. Congratulations on another exciting publication! How did this anthology come about, and how did you come onboard as one of the writers?

Tananarive Due

I’m a huge Jordan Peele fan, of course, both because of the quality of his work and because of his importance in opening doors for marginalized horror creators in Hollywood. So, I was very excited when I heard that he wanted to curate an anthology of new Black Horror—which actually can mean so many things, from futurism to historical fiction to monsters to curses. 

A call went out for manuscripts, and I do consider myself lucky to have been chosen. I wrote a short story called “The Rider,” which is also Jim Crow horror, also loosely based on the history of my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, and her sister, Priscilla Stephens Kruize. They did not participate in the Freedom Rides together, but they were very active, and I wanted to capture the trauma of their civil rights activism, particularly in Florida. Like the character named after her in the story, my late mother wore dark glasses for the rest of her life because of sensitivity to light after she was tear gassed at a nonviolent protest in 1960. 

Like I said in the Horror Noire documentary, “Black History is Black Horror.” 

Devi Bhaduri

What’s next for you?

Tananarive Due

I’m working now with Steve to develop two of my novels for TV, both with sets of producers and one with a director attached, but they’re still at the pitching stage. And I have a short story called “Incident at Bear Creek Lodge”—nominated for a World Fantasy Award, actually—that we’ve adapted to a screenplay. My plan now is to start working on that story as my next novel. 

The Reformatory
by Tananarive Due
Gallery/Saga Press
Published October 31, 2023

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