What if Jean Valjean was Black in America today?

What if Jean Valjean was black?

In America.


This week, forty-five Notre Dame students will travel to the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago to experience the 25th Anniversary Tour of the epic musical, Les Miserables, the popular theatrical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s critique of nineteenth-century French caste society.

Jean Valjean is the show’s celebrated central hero: An ex-convict who breaks parole after serving a nineteen-year hard-labor sentence simply for robbing a house in order to feed his sister’s dying child. A punishment that seems outrageous to the audience’s ears.

Once paroled, Valjean runs into all kinds of barriers in place to keep him from any upward social mobility. Not to mention he will be hunted throughout the show by the musical’s main antagonist, Police Inspector Javert.

Though not always, the hero Jean Valjean is typically played by a white performer.

And in light of some recent critical research and scholarship about the histories and accounts of experiences of black men and other men of color in the segregated criminal justice system in the United States, Valjean’s Les Miz epic might have a lot to offer a discussion of our time and our place if we would consider, even for a moment, the counter-factual question:

“What if Jean Valjean was black in America today?”

Would he be able to achieve what the character Valjean achieves? Would we still cheer for him?

Do we?

I’ll leave it open for now, though I will posit that we might not have to rack our brains too much to answer this question. The difficult history of racial caste relations in America and its equally unsettling relationship with punitive justice, nonviolent crimes, and especially the War on Drugs have been explained critically enough in recent years by scholars such as Michelle Alexander.

And so although the audience smiles and applauds when Jean Valjean is able to break free of his oppressive system and achieve a wild, swashbuckling and fulfilling life, I hope that we don’t ignore the very real possibility that the situation of the dashing, singing character Valjean seen at the beginning of the musical might not be very different at all from the real-life situation of the man standing just outside the Cadillac Palace in downtown Chicago and holding the sign:

Stand up. Stand up. Stand up!

Marvin Worthy’s charge to the new resident hall staffs on Wednesday afternoon was to stand up and to be a leader in the fight against oppression on campus this year.

That’s a fairly tall order and I’m not as good at inspirational speech as Mr. Worthy.

The truth is there’s a lot to unpack following an afternoon devoted to diversity and oppression, and Mr. Worthy’s charge to stand up—echoed by MSPS—isn’t an easy thing.

It isn’t an easy thing to do: to change a campus culture, to fight oppression on a campus steeped in many years of tradition.

Because tradition, by design, operates counter to change.

And to fight to change will occasionally or always mean defying and dismantling quite a bit of what’s considered tradition.

Are you prepared truly and wholly to do that?

–I have worked in Multicultural Student Programs and Services for five years and I’m still not 100% sure that I can do it 100% of the time.–

(And if you’d like to talk to me about that process, I am always willing.)

Mr. Worthy suggested yesterday that to fight oppression will be difficult, but that “we have to try.”

But I wonder if that’s totally true. We don’t have to try, do we?—not if we don’t want to.

Sure, we can and should respond to negative, discriminatory acts on our campus–acts which we recognize are not isolated incidents, but rather daily occurrences and which are inherent in our world and on our campus.

But that doesn’t mean we have to challenge ourselves to understand these acts on a deeper level. We don’t have to critique our traditions and to work together to fight the oppressive systems that allowed these acts to happen in the first place.

We don’t have to—not if we don’t want to.

It is insufficient to understand our leadership roles as those of doctors and nurses in a hospital treating all patients regardless of their afflictions and regardless of their racial, sexual, gender, class, or religious orientations and identities.

It is insufficient because to tolerate difference—as if difference is something undesirable that we must nevertheless deal with—is to deny the true identity of others on an equal and socially just plane.

Does this make sense?

From the activist Audre Lorde:

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference… is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”

(The larger original is worth reading several times, as well, if you’re interested.)

Lorde is advocating that merely tolerance and acceptance of difference is insufficient.

Rather than tolerance and acceptance of differences, we need to be motivated to acknowledge differences as wholly and intrinsically equal.

If we were motivated to view differences as wholly and intrinsically equal in value, then differences could not be demeaned as the butts of jokes or the objects of insensitive parties or the underlying motivations for hate mail, hate crimes, and hate speech on our campus and in our daily lives.

It is absolutely an issue of social justice to work fully toward achieving a level of understanding that acknowledges that differences should be appreciated as of intrinsically equal value, not merely traits that must be “tolerated,” “accepted,” or “dealt with” passively.

But again, this kind of deep, structural understanding and motivation to change is difficult.

Traditions and familiar ways of doing things might have to die absolutely will have to die for true change to happen.

We’ll probably have to put turf on the football field, too.

And that is because we understand today that there are better ways to do things than before. And that’s OK. And that’s necessary for the survival of our world.

Mr. Worthy rightly suggested that his presentation should not be the end, but the beginning of the conversation. There will be several opportunities to continue to engage with issues of race and identity and class this year through the offerings of MSPS and other sharp, like-minded, action-oriented departments and offices.

Be sure to check those out.

Of course, you don’t really have to—not if you don’t want to.

But like Mr. Worthy, MSPS is calling on you to stand up and do it because you want to and because it’s Right.


Is Baseball White Public Space??

Is Baseball White Public Space?

(It’s not an entirely original question. I’m borrowing it from a recent article in the American Anthropologist)

Over Friday and Saturday, August 24-25, the MSPS Martin Luther King, Jr. Series for the Study of Race kicks off with a 30-hour immersion program in Chicago where we will ask critical questions about race and major league baseball.

Is baseball a public space? Who is it for? Who owns it? What is baseball’s division of labor like? How is baseball situated in the communities in which games are played?

Chicago is a unique place to look critically at race and baseball because the city hosts two different major league baseball teams, each situated in two very different communities.

The Chicago Cubs play their games on the north side of the city at Wrigley Field in a community that is predominantly white and higher on the socio-economic scale.

Conversely, The Chicago White Sox play their games on the south side of the city at U.S. Cellular Field adjacent a community that is overwhelmingly predominantly black and situated much, much lower on the economic spectrum.

We will have a chance to walk around in each of these communities and get to chat a little bit with some of their members and visit some of their stores and restaurants. We will also get to attend a major league baseball game in each of these stadiums, where we will also be looking at how race and economics impact life and community during a typical, regular-season game.

(For more info, check out an interesting paper comparing the economic impact of Wrigley Field and U.S.Cellular Field by an Economics Professor at Lake Forest College.)

We will make some sharp comparisons between each of these two communities. We will also note how each baseball team, the Cubs and the White Sox, separates and/or integrates into the communities in which they play.

It’s kind of like an ethnography project, if you’re familiar with the method. (Wikipedia it!). Everyone who participates will receive a small field journal to use for reflections, jotting down observations, interviews, etc.

We will also have an opportunity to meet with some important people in these communities.

The experience makes use of public transportation the entire trip. We will leave via the South Shore Line train from South Bend Regional Airport at 12:59pm on Friday, August 24th and use the CTA transit system while we are in Chicago.

We will stay together overnight in the Chicago downtown “loop” area following the White Sox vs Seattle Mariners game on Friday night.

We will head back to South Bend immediately following the Chicago Cubs vs Colorado Rockies game on Saturday afternoon. We will return to South Bend by about 8:00pm on Saturday night.

Please keep in mind that there is a fair amount of walking on this trip, as we will be moving through communities and heading out on miniature observation assignments during the games. (There will still be plenty of time to enjoy the games, too)

We are attempting to keep this group very intimate to help with the accessibility of the program. So space is limited right now.

If you are interested in coming along and thinking about these questions (and probably others) with us, please, please send me an email ASAP (tblake@nd.edu) so that I can hold your spot now. If you have any questions at all about this trip, please don’t hesitate to email me or find MSPS on Twitter and Facebook.

Hope to see you soon.