From The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories
In her short story “Alcatraz,” from the 2020 collection The Office of Historical Corrections, Danielle Evans glosses William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” If this was true for the Mississippi writer in the post-Reconstruction South (the original line appears in the 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun), it remains equally true throughout the U.S. today. The debate about whether to allow Confederate statues and memorials to remain standing – a culture war that has long been simmering, but boiled over in the wake of the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd – underscores the extent to which American history is present in contemporary reality and the way the country’s original sin of slavery continues to stain the republic more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War.
Evans’s concern in her collection is how to redress history’s wrongs, or, in the case of “Boys Go to Jupiter,” the way those wrongs persist and result in present-day conflict.
The precipitating incident in the story involves a photograph that goes viral online. In the image, Claire, the story’s protagonist, is wearing a bikini designed to look like the Confederate flag. Claire has been spending the Christmas holidays in St. Petersburg, Florida, visiting her retired father. After departing Florida, and before she even makes it back to her college in Vermont, Claire is assailed by emails and voice messages ranging “from hostile to bewildered”; the reaction has been prompted by a tweet of the bikini photo by a Black woman named Carmen, who lives across the hall in Claire’s college dorm. When she arrives back at school, Claire compounds the error by printing out a Confederate flag photo that she slides under Carmen’s door with the note, “Welcome back! I hope you had a great vacation.”
This scenario could easily have been fodder for an overly simplistic, didactic story about white supremacy and privilege, but Evans is too good a writer for that. She is more interested in nuance and a sliding scale of guilt and innocence, while also effectively using her fictional architecture to dramatize the enduring ills of racism in 21st-century America. (The story was composed in 2013 and first appeared in the Sewanee Review in 2017; the following year, Roxane Gay chose it for the 2018 volume of The Best American Short Stories.)
The bikini was not Claire’s idea; it was a gift from her ne’er-do-well Florida boyfriend, Jackson. It is good ol’ boy Jackson who is the aficionado of Confederate regalia – much to the chagrin of Puppy, Claire’s ”almost stepmother” – and it is Jackson who posts the swimsuit pic online, tagging Claire (along with the hashtag #mygirl) without her permission. As if that weren’t enough, the bikini is a regift originally purchased for Jackson’s ex: “he bought it for five dollars on a spring break trip, he says, for a girlfriend he subsequently found blowing one of his friends in their shared motel room.”
Evans signals her method early by highlighting the contingent nature of her characters. Puppy’s legal name is Poppy – the nickname a supposed holdover from a kid sister’s mispronunciation (though Claire doubts the veracity of this). Jackson, who is a half-year older than Claire but still in high school, sports a farmer’s tan “in spite of his lack of farming experience.” When Claire dons the offensive swimsuit, she feels it makes her look “like someone she is not.” Claire has a half-brother, Sean, and as a child in Virginia, she used to play with a couple of Black siblings, Angela and Aaron; “she thinks of herself as having half of Angela’s brother too.” These characters all exist in a liminal state between who they really are and how they present themselves to others.
This is germane to Claire’s online respondents, who target her with gender-based insults and snarky memes (including imagined future vacation destinations like My Lai or Wounded Knee). None of this, of course, excuses Claire’s doubling down by sliding the photo under her schoolmate’s door, an action she considers a legitimate response to the organized attacks she is receiving online: “She distrusts collective anger; Claire’s anger has always been her own.”
Indeed, Claire is oblivious to the offence her swimwear might cause. “She wasn’t wearing the bikini to bother Black people,” Evans writes, “but to bother Puppy, who is half racist anyway” (another example of contingency). Claire finds nothing discordant in the recognition that there are no Black people in her father’s St. Petersburg neighbourhood who might be bothered by her attire; she remains innocent of the privilege that allows her father to afford a tony retirement residence in Florida. She is similarly surprised when she sees Carmen on the news after the Black woman asks to be relocated to another dorm: “There is genuine fear in her eyes, which startles Claire.” Claire legitimately cannot understand why the symbolism inherent in the Confederate flag slid uninvited into a Black woman’s living quarters might seem at all threatening.
But then, Claire has been surrounded by knee-jerk racial and class intolerance all her life. When Puppy sees her in the bikini, she calls her “white trash,” a derogatory epithet historically applied to the white underclass. Claire’s mother refers to Angela and Aaron as “Irish twins”: the offensive term originating in the 19th century and referring to the children of poor Irish Catholic immigrants born within the same calendar year. It also chimes with the racist trope of Black families producing multiple children out of wedlock. When Claire and Angela are selected to do a school presentation for Martin Luther King Day, the former is dressed as a patriot in a tricornered hat, the latter in “a kente cloth dress.” After the bikini pic and Confederate flag photo blow up online, Claire is offered support from a member of the college libertarians and a group called the Heritage Defenders (one of whom is a member of a fraternity that hosts an annual “plantation ball”). In a moment that highlights Evans’s propensity for cutting humour, Claire also notes that “[t]wenty-two different rednecks from around the country have sent her supportive pictures of their penises.”
To what extent is Claire guilty of causing harm? The photo under the door and her subsequent act of hanging a reproduction of a Confederate flag in her dorm window are clearly volitional, but what of the picture posted online without her knowledge or consent? When Claire gets blackout drunk at a party in her senior year of high school and Aaron tries to drive her home, a group of white teens force them off the road, refusing to believe that a Black man could have any benign reason for being in a car with an inebriated white woman. The fallout from this incident is profound; Claire’s relative responsibility for what transpires is murky.
Evans resolutely refuses to stack the deck in favour of or against any one character, preferring instead to present a scenario in which the moral centre is constantly shifting. The story flashes back and forth in time, the better to highlight the way the past intrudes on, and informs, the present. This, perhaps, is the final takeaway from “Boys Go to Jupiter”: if the wages of sin is death, the wages of racism is prolonged historical suffering. It is our collective responsibility as a society to recognize it where it exerts itself and, at a bare minimum, to take care not to make it worse.