In Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ, the narrator’s identity is not overtly revealed until the last chapter of the novel. Such calling attention to its narrative nature demonstrates the difficulty of restoring unheard stories to the accepted version of history. These stories often resist being told, as the narrator Marcus admits: “This was supposed to be my story. Turns out to be everybody else’s” (197). In fact, it is just such a subplot on which I wish to focus: the story of Marcus’s sister, Eleanor Roosevelt Gandy, and the tragic consequences of her attempts to meet white standards of beauty. Though her story is not the main one, it is important enough that it does break through the main narrative for a couple of chapters. By including Eleanor’s story, the novel calls attention to the very physical dangers posed by unattainable white beauty standards on young black girls.
Thirteen year old Eleanor is described as “sensitive” because she does not like to sit in the movie theater balcony “watching the pretty white people all together and happy down below” (109). Her crush on Roger Wing, her white college-aged neighbor, is at first rather cute. However, when she appears at his jujitsu studio wearing her best dress, her innocent puppy love quickly takes a disturbing turn. Roger, in his typical state of lust, uses her flirtation as an excuse to molest her. Eleanor understands this act to be a declaration of love. Roger, however, subsequently vacillates between guilt over his molestation of a child and anger over what he considers to be her seduction of him (111).
Eleanor becomes withdrawn and begins pulling her hair out. Her unconscious behavior attempts to mark on her body the abuse she has suffered, not only to make visible what is invisible, but also as a form of self-punishment for her perceived failure to keep Roger as her boyfriend. She attributes this failure to her own ugliness—specifically, her lack of pink skin. We see this after Roger describes the torture of a young African American girl, about which Eleanor asks, “‘Wa[s] she ugly?’” (126). Eleanor equates racist violence with what she perceives as the ugliness of her race, and takes extreme measures to rectify this, as she “washed her face with Drano” in an attempt to bleach it (132). Even more horrifying than this act alone is her reaction to the pain: though she yells with pain, she is thinks that she is “smiling and singing” (132), and as she is taken to the hospital she celebrates what she imagines is her victory over her brown skin, expecting her skin to grow back a beautiful pink color.
In the midst of the larger, more overtly political violence in the book, it seems strange to focus on what might be read as a minor subplot involving a disturbed young teen. However, Butler ties Eleanor’s story to the novel’s larger themes of sex and violence to emphasize just how dangerous life was for a young African American girl in Mississippi in 1961, even if she somehow managed to avoid the riots and thrown bricks. In fact, resistance to white standards of beauty is identified as a political act in the novel when Roger encounters a young woman who has refused to embrace white standards of female beauty: “She wore her hair in a way that he had never seen anyone wear hair before: it was a great busy globe nearly two feet in diameter, like a trimmed hedge, like a large strange hat from outer space” (39). Both her glare at Roger and Marcus’s explanation—“She ain’t arn it….She mad at white people” (39)—emphasize that hair can be a form of social protest:
Despite his detestable molestation of Eleanor, Roger is ultimately a good guy, taking Marcus from the dangers of Jackson and raising him in the comparatively safer environment of Arkansas. However, that he can sexually assault a girl and not only get away with it but put it behind him as he does highlights not only the entrenched violence of the system but also Roger’s own privileged position within it. More importantly, it shows how the violence of the time was not only in the billy clubs and the Klan but also present in less dramatic elements, part of an insidious force in the larger culture. By allowing Eleanor’s story to break through, Butler emphasizes the subtle ways in which privilege and violence intertwine in 1960s Mississippi.