Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Third Spaces and First Places: Jack Butler's Jujitsu for Christ and Hybridity in the US South

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Third Spaces and First Places: Jack Butler's Jujitsu for Christ and Hybridity in the US South

Article excerpt

SET IN THE EARLY 1960S, JUJITSU FOR CHRIST(1986), THE FIRST NOVEL BY Mississippi native Jack Butler, tells the story of Roger Wing, a born-again Christian martial-arts expert who opens a studio in Jackson, Mississippi, where he befriends the Gandys, an African American family: parents A.L. and Snower Mae, teenaged son T.J., daughter Eleanor Roosevelt, and youngest son Marcus. Their sometimes tragic, sometimes comic (mis)adventures take place in a climate of growing racial unrest. The novel's climactic scene occurs at an Ole Miss football game in 1962, just before the riots surrounding James Meredith's entrance to that university. (1) At the game, Roger and Mr. Gandy witness a white mob, whipped into a frenzy by governor Ross Barnett's declaration of love for Mississippi's traditions, beat T.J. to death under the mistaken belief that he intends to assassinate the demagogic governor.

However, the plot of fujitsu for Christ is really only half the story, so to speak. Although most of the novel unspools in a beautifully lyrical but otherwise straightforward third-person omniscient narrative, another voice, speaking sometimes in African American vernacular, occasionally breaks in, hectoring the narrator to get on with the show or ruminating on the narrator's motivations for telling this story at all. Adding to the puzzle, the novel begins with a mysterious epigraph, a dialogue between an anonymous speaker and a character called Nephew in which they debate the perils and the merits of cultural and racial mixing:

   You got a black voice and a white voice, Nephew said. A land voice
   and a cruel voice.

   Everybody does, I said. This is a divided country. I want the
   voices to come together in one whole voice.

   Everybody don't, Nephew said. You don't know yo fellow man. I don't
   know about no country, but you sho need making whole. A glad voice
   and a mourning voice, he said.

The implications of this exchange do not become apparent until the novel's final chapter, in which the narrator and the disruptive voice are both revealed as the youngest Gandy, Marcus, who, in the aftermath of T.J.'s murder, fled Mississippi with Roger Wing and who has spent a significant portion of his life passing for white. (2) After dropping the veil of anonymity, Marcus tells us that when he went on the lam with Roger, he "turned into a white man by accident, more or less." He "was a great mimic, and he talked white as soon as he figured out his world was white" (204). His barely repressed anger, however, will not allow him to maintain this facade forever, and once out of high school he breaks with Roger and goes "knocking around in this sorry world for a dozen years as some kind of mediocre bad-ass, screwed-up convert to Niggerdom, which I no longer had any real talent for." Even the modest living he makes working in the marketable niche of "Standard Black Writer" feels like a sham: "They thought they were getting a real nigger, but no. They were getting an ex-nigger. An ex-nigger the second time around" (206).

Thus, fujitsu for Christ poses a conundrum: a novel written by a white man writing in the voice of a black man who has passed for white and tries, through much of the text, to pass as a racially unmarked (and, one could argue, therefore implicitly white) omniscient narrator. This breaking down of racial categories traditionally thought of as fixed and stable is central to Butler's project, a project we can best understand by placing it in the context of studies of Southern literature and culture that draw upon postcolonial theory, especially that field's examination of the complicated concept of hybridity. (3)

Hybridity has become an important trope for many critics seeking to understand the US South--understandably, given the South's complicated history, one which combines strict racial segregation and an insistence on stable racial categories with innumerable instances of inter-racial sexual liaisons and social exchanges. …

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