The Ghost of America’s Past Haunts Its Present: On Tananarive Due’s “The Reformatory”
By Melanie A. MarottaOctober 31, 2023
The Reformatory by Tananarive Due
In her dedication of the novel to her great-uncle Robert Stephens, Due provides a timely reminder of the United States’ past—the reformatory school for boys—and the ghosts that accompany it. Like one of her two sibling protagonists in the novel, Due’s great-uncle spent his formative years in a reformatory and died in this place during his adolescence. Using her great-uncle’s story as a vehicle through which to divulge betrayals of the American legal system, Due envisions the impact of a racially segregated Florida and the damage that it inflicts on its residents. The Reformatory thus gives readers a story with its basis in reality as Due introduces African American characters haunted by a past that repeats itself.
Betrayed by a legal system that should have worked to protect him, Due’s protagonist Robert Jr. stands before a judge and is sentenced for kicking a white boy. Lyle McCormack had made sexual advances toward Robert’s sister Gloria and, to protect her, Robert kicked Lyle. After the sentencing, the novel unfolds through dual perspectives: Robert’s from inside the Reformatory and his sister Gloria’s from outside as she works with her guardian (Miz Lottie) and others to free Robert from his imprisonment. Through Gloria, the reader learns that the reason behind the McCormack family’s power and wealth is enslavement. The white and wealthy landowning McCormack family exerts control over the Floridian community of Gracetown. The McCormack family and their descendants have monetized the Black body, an act of dehumanization that did not end with emancipation as it continued into the 20th century.
Through a complex plot, Due gives readers characters entangled with one another through the ongoing power of enslavement and systemic racism. As Gloria stands in Misery Swamp fishing with her employer, Anne Powell, and law student Chandler Holt, she learns how deep racism runs in Florida and how dangerous it is to those who want change. It is 1950, and the two white gay women, fearing retribution, hold the meeting at the swamp, a place for African Americans to fish, as all of Florida is segregated. Anne is the daughter of a former councilman who lost his position due to the Klan, while Chandler is in law school. Both tell Gloria that they are willing to help free Robert from the Reformatory, and will go so far as to hide Gloria for her own safety near Zora Neale Hurston’s Black-incorporated town of Eatonville, but that the odds of success are stacked against them. Gloria is upset because she truly understands what can happen to Robert; as Gloria and Anne drive up to the swamp, Gloria spies the tree that her father, Robert Stephens Sr., told her about from his childhood. The tree was used for lynching African American men—her father told her that he would walk past the tree on his way to school, often seeing a body hanging there.
Robert Sr., for his part, is absent from much of the novel because we learn he attempted to obtain equality for African American workers through a union. A white woman accused him of rape, forcing him to flee to Chicago. Chandler tells Gloria that, because of her father’s social activism, her brother is now being used to draw him out of hiding. Gloria learns how deep the corruption of Gracetown runs when she asks who has conspired to place her brother in harm’s way. Chandler replies,
The sheriff. The judge. The growers. The town council. The White Citizens’ Council. Chamber of commerce. The Klan, of course. Hard to think of anyone with sway in Gracetown or Marianna who isn’t gunning for Robert Stephens. He scared them, that’s why. He walked tall, didn’t stoop his shoulders.
As Miz Lottie explains to Gloria, the Reformatory itself has a history of corruption and abuse. Its “evil” culminated in 1920 when someone locked 25 boys in a shed and set it on fire; the boys died, and their ghosts haunt the Reformatory. Robert Jr. sees the ghosts of the boys, both Black and white, who burned to death—a dubious distinction granted to children, who are able to break the veil between worlds and see “haints.”
The Reformatory then serves as synecdoche for the town itself. Anne, for whom Gloria works, believes that she is a reformer and supports equality; Gloria calls attention to Anne’s hypocrisy, repeatedly reminding her that her family once owned people. In fact, Miz Lottie was enslaved as a child and served as a foot-warmer for Anne’s mother. Gloria recalls Miz Lottie telling her not to expect assistance from Miss Anne based on the fact that they are “related to them from slavery days.” It is Miz Lottie who summarizes the infection that ravages Gracetown: “We got a sickness here in Gracetown, Gloria. Maybe at the Reformatory worst of all. […] A blood sickness. Too much killing and dying. Too many restless spirits. Angry spirits. […] Maybe it’s a curse on us—a town named for Grace that don’t act like no godly place.”
Through her scrutiny of the United States’ dark history of racism and its legacy, Due constructs her novel as a neo-slave narrative, thereby contributing to a contemporary genre in which Black authors reenvision American enslavement while providing their protagonists with some agency over their lives—something that does not happen in a formerly enslaved person’s story. Such works, like Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Beloved (1987) or Sherri L. Smith’s YA novel Orleans (2013), comment on modern-day enslavement and in some cases incorporate ghosts to impress on the characters and readers alike that the United States’ past may not be erased; it continues to haunt and recall the enormity of systemic racism. While the plot may have Robert Jr. as its focal point, it is the heroism of Gloria, a child who stands up to systemic racism and is willing to risk her own life to save her brother, that is central to Due’s story.
In the process of developing her neo-slave narrative, Due’s tome invokes famous works of African American literature such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), thereby continuing the tradition of writers confronting institutionalized racism. Calling to mind Douglass, the Reformatory is a loosely disguised plantation with its superintendent acting as enslaver and children either working in the kitchens or in the fields. Robert’s new friend Redbone tells him that he has been imprisoned in the Reformatory since he was 10 and that, at the end of his term, “He might go home then or he might get leased out to the peanut mill or one of the farms,” serving as human property beyond his tenure at the school. The ghost of Ellison is conjured through Robert Jr.’s Jewish social worker, David R. Loehmann, who fears getting involved himself in the fight against the imprisonment of children due to the antisemitism in the South and his family’s deaths in the Holocaust. David tells Robert about the commodification of African American and poor white boys by the Southern American legal system: “That place pays the county a good sum for every boy sent there, so you’ve just been sold. Never forget that. They don’t want to send you home.” He also tells Robert repeatedly that his best chance to survive the Reformatory is to not call attention to himself—to be invisible.
Due stresses through Robert’s Jr.’s imprisonment that children are not safe and that patterns can be repeated. It is the specters of the past—the ghosts—that are witnessed by the child characters, reminding them of what has happened to the children of the Reformatory. The children in the novel represent the future, enacting Due’s themes of not only reformative justice but also female empowerment. The women of Robert’s family secure his freedom with Gloria taking the lead, as Due emphasizes that gendered and racialized positionality can change.
In the end, with her newest novel, Tananarive Due provides readers with a compelling story based on historical fact. Combining reality with gothic hauntings, Due’s latest effort will appeal not only to die-hard Due fans but also to conscientious readers determined to bring American enslavement and racism to the forefront of US history.
Melanie A. Marotta is a lecturer in the Department of English and Language Arts at Morgan State University.
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