On their 25th wedding anniversary on Christmas night in 1951, Florida teachers Harry T. and Harriette Moore were fatally injured when a bomb exploded under their bed. It took more than half a century to identify the Ku Klux Klan members who had targeted the two civil rights advocates, who played a key role in registering Black voters and investigating lynchings.
The Moores’ murders, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, and the Rosewood massacre are just a few of the real-life terrors that shape Tananarive Due’s latest novel, The Reformatory, but that likely won’t be taught in public schools in Florida or in any other state where history lessons are under siege. Horror authors such as Due seek to use the genre to honor the past without re-triggering their readers.
The Reformatory contains elements of horror, but it also is an engrossing piece of historical fiction. Released on Tuesday, the book sheds light on the atrocities that were visited on Black Americans in the Jim Crow South. And it does this at a moment when conservative parents and lawmakers around the country continue their push to banish from schools and public libraries all titles that grapple with race and racism — think Beloved, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel about a family of formerly enslaved people who are haunted by a ghost.
Set in mid-century Florida, The Reformatory follows two Black siblings, 12-year-old Robert and 16-year-old Gloria, as they try to get Robert out of an abusive reform school stalked by haints, or spirits, after he receives a six-month sentence merely for kicking a white boy who had been tormenting Gloria.
An executive producer of the 2019 documentary Horror Noire, Due teaches a course on Afrofuturism and Black horror at UCLA, and she contributed to Jordan Peele’s new book, Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror. She and I recently spoke about the genre’s power to help Black people explore histories of racism and the urgency of her work in a political climate where the governor of her home state — Florida — is leading the charge against Black studies.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: Why is horror an effective way to exhume and examine histories of racism?
I love the way you worded that question — the book is an exhumation, really quite literally. What inspired me to start research for The Reformatory was word that I had a great-uncle who was buried at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, and was there at the start of excavation. And there’s a very literal parallel to bringing these stories out to the light, because especially in these political times, there’s a tendency to want to suppress bad histories.
I often tell my students at UCLA that lynching is too literal to write about as horror. Not only does it trigger ancestral imagination and stories of running and hiding, but it’s too on the nose. So in Black historical horror, what you want to do is make that past real and pay homage to the suffering of our forebears without re-triggering your readers. So instead of depicting a lynching in a horror story, why not write a story about a tree? It could be an evil tree. And maybe it’s evil because lynchings happened there a long time ago. I’d fall right into a story about an evil tree, whereas a story about a literal lynching has me turning away.
Black horror is a great mechanism for this kind of thinking because, as horror creators, we can draw in our audiences by replicating small traumas from our lives, or from our ancestors’ lives — go only so far into the waters, then add a fantasy element that’s not the thing itself but that’s meant to recreate the feeling of that dread. I look to Nia DaCosta’s Candyman as a great example of that. The sort of social-cultural bedrock of the film is the Black Lives Matter movement and police killings. But a movie that’s just about police killing after police killing isn’t a good time. So instead, we take that touchstone of the police killing and open it up to a fantasy element, which is: What if a bee stung you and your body started to transform into something else?
I know that your mother, the civil rights leader Patricia Stephens Due, was a horror superfan, too. Did she see the genre as a healthy release from the racial trauma she experienced?
That’s what brought her to horror, I think. That’s what brought me to horror. She was always watching these creature features. She gave me my first Stephen King book, The Shining, when I was 16 years old. And she very much supported my early books when I first began publishing horror.
I never got the chance to discuss this with her, but I really do think that it was because of racial trauma, because of her PTSD from the civil rights era — multiple arrests and tear-gassing — that horror was such a relief and a release to her.
How does it feel to publish a book that explores Jim Crow Florida at a time when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is among the most vociferous anti-Black studies advocates? There’s a line in your novel that sounds like something he’d say: “The past belongs in the past. I rebuke evil spirits who dwell in history.”
I wish that I could say that it’s a new phenomenon that politicians try to suppress history, but it’s just the newest incarnation of it. The whole reason my late mother wanted to write a book about the Civil Rights Movement in Florida was because she’d already seen that erasure happening in real time. And there were no big announcements about it — no laws passed about it. It was happening all by itself.
She’s meeting with the textbook committee. They’re telling her that there was no Civil Rights Movement in Florida. She was stunned. She and my aunt, Priscilla (Stephens) Kruize, spent 49 days in jail with other Florida A&M University students in 1960 for sitting in at a Woolworth lunch counter. They got a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr., went on a speaking tour with my grandmother, and were hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Belafonte. My mother was arrested multiple times and tear-gassed to the point where she wore dark glasses pretty much 80% of the time, even indoors, until she died.
This is the woman who’s being told that there was no Civil Rights Movement in Florida.
So the efforts to reframe history is something that’s played out over and over again. But it’s especially disappointing in our current times, in 2023, to get any sense of something my mother was always afraid of: the clock turning backward. Attempts to more deeply explore history and different cultures have met a backlash. That’s sad. I feel for the students. I feel for the teachers, many of whom are leaving — they don’t know how to navigate these new waters. It’s a very frightening phenomenon. But maybe The Reformatory can help repair some of the damage.
Your book is a piece of historical fiction — but it’s also in conversation with our present day.
It represents my best recreation of what it might have been like to live in Jim Crow Florida, but I also want readers to be able to spot how those seeds have sprouted. They look different today, but we actually sometimes live under similar circumstances.
One of those things, unfortunately, is the criminal justice system. We have the biggest prison industrial complex in the world, and it’s built on feeding this system Black and brown bodies. The “colored only” and “white only” signs have come down, but too many of us still feel our hearts race when we see blue lights in the mirror when we get pulled over. And unfortunately, with good reason. I specifically made the infraction Robert commits what I’d call a schoolyard kick, because those very same schoolyard kicks in 2023 are getting children sent to juvenile prisons.
So The Reformatory is a historical novel, but for me, it’s as much about today as it is about the Jim Crow era.