“The Office of Historical Corrections” is a Trenchant Dramatization of Racial Inequity in America

Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections, now available in paperback, is a trenchant dramatization of racial inequity in America. It is the most profound and relevant collection of short fiction I’ve read in a long time. It should not be missed.

Evans teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and is the author of the short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which was published to critical acclaim in 2010 and landed the author on the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” list.

The Office of Historical Corrections includes six short stories and the novella for which the collection is named. The stories are compact and well-structured, full of sardonicism, narrative tension and complex characters and relationships; collectively, they foreshadow the novella that follows. The lived experience of Black women in America permeates and energizes the entire work. Evans’ female characters — and all of her protagonists are women — are just trying to live their lives by striving, loving, grieving and caring for themselves, their parents, children and friends, but they are doing so in the face of racially-motivated microaggressions or outright racism.

In “Happily Ever After,” a young Black woman named Lyssa, grieving the loss of her mother to cancer, works at a museum that is a replica of the Titanic. The museum hosts weddings and children’s birthday parties on the upper decks of the “ship”; Lyssa works as a cashier in the gift shop on the lower level (the class metaphor is hard to miss). Her white coworker, Mackenzie, gets to be the “princess-on-deck,” while Lyssa never chaperones the parties — her supervisor saying something about “historical accuracy, meaning no Black princesses.”

We learn that when Lyssa’s mother was in the hospital, Lyssa had to buy clothes she couldn’t afford and fix her hair and makeup in order to be taken seriously by the doctors: “Whatever information they weren’t going to give her, whatever medicine they didn’t bother trying on Black women, she would have to ask to get, would have to ask for directly so that it went in the file if they refused, but ask for without seeming stupid or aggressive or cold.”

In “Boys Go to Jupiter” a shallow, self-absorbed white college student reckons with social and political fallout when a photograph of her in a Confederate flag bikini goes viral. She ends up alienating the Black students on campus and landing herself in the dean’s office, and though she occasionally feels shame, she doubles down. Evans leaves it doubtful that she will ever face any real consequences for her actions.

“Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” exemplifies another theme in the collection, that of the rectification of errors or inaccuracies — the making of “corrections,” either personal or historical. In this story, an artist goes on a public apology tour and tries to make amends to the women he’s harmed — including the Long-Suffering Ex-Wife, the On-Again Off-Again Ex of his Wayward Youth, the Former Personal Assistant and the Model/Actress Who Dated Him a While Ago. The apologies are performative, and the labels for each woman give the story a mythical quality and turn it into a kind of post-MeToo parable.

The eponymous novella is also about corrections. Cassie is a former history professor who now works for an agency called the Institute for Public History, or IPH, in an imagined yet believable Washington, DC. It is her job to protect the historical record by correcting any inaccuracies she finds in her community; at one point she corrects a flyer in a cake shop that gets the meaning of Juneteenth wrong.

When Cassie’s grade-school friend-turned-frenemy and former IPH colleague Genevieve corrects a historical sign in Cherry Mill, Wisconsin, scandalizing the descendants of Depression-era white supremacists who allegedly murdered a Black man named Josiah Wynslow, Cassie is sent to clean up the mess. It turns out the mess is even messier than she anticipated. Together Cassie and Genevieve investigate the murder, and the novella becomes a satisfying whodunit that is complicated by the dangerous unraveling of a local white supremacist who goes by the name White Justice.

Layered on top of the narrative, however, is what makes the novella so immensely satisfying: an exploration of white privilege (“What would a white person actually have to do to lose the benefit of the doubt?” Genevieve asks), of truth and who gets to tell it, of female friendship and of the improbability of fixing anything when it comes to the past. It’s also an exploration of who Black women have to be and what they have to do to succeed — and how it will never be enough in this society.

The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories
By Danielle Evans
Riverhead Books
Published November 10, 2020
Paperback November 9, 2021