Homeless reality and Hollywood's bootstrap myth
OPINION I'm not sure why the new movie The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith, based on the life of previously homeless Chris Gardner's rise to millionaire, is so hard to write about. I am rarely at a loss for words, especially about poverty, homelessness, and racism. Perhaps it's because this movie made me so sad that even as I try for the 40th time to write this, my eyes well up with broken tears. Not tears for the amazing Horatio Alger, old-school, preNew Deal, up-by-the-bootstraps, 1930s-esque, blind-to-flagrant-racism-and-classism story.
No, instead my tears are deep and blood-filled for myself and my mama, homeless in a broken-down car for years upon years on the bitter cold streets of Oakland; for fellow poverty scholars and formerly homeless welfare queens and Poor Magazine staff members; for Jewnbug and her mama, Vivien and Jasmine Hain, Laurie McElroy and her son, and all the other unseen children, adults, and elders who subsist homeless in America, barely holding on through countless overnight stays in the sidewalk hotel. Tears for the fact that homelessness can happen with the regularity that it does, that every year Sister Bernie Galvin from Witness for Homeless People mourns the loss of hundreds more people who have died on the streets of San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the world.
Or perhaps they are only tears for Gardner, a poor man of African descent who was so driven to "make it" in this capitalist reality that he didn't see the tragic paradox of his own situation his continual denial of the rampant racism in his Dean Witter internship. Tears for a man who came so close to not making it in that palace of oppression, as he and his son slept on the floor of a bus station bathroom.
Or maybe they're just tears for the myth of the bootstraps and how there is no place for that lie in the 21st century as more and more people locally and globally hover on the dangerous precipice of homelessness, wrongly believing it's just about working hard enough and anyone can achieve what they want.
Or maybe they're tears of admiration for an amazing and dedicated father who no matter what was there for his son, like so many of us poor mamas and papas.
Or maybe the tears are because Gardner, when asked on a radio show if he believed that there was an essential problem with him and his son being homeless in one of the richest cities in the world, replied with a resounding no: it was just about working harder, and anyone can achieve anything they set out to do.
Or maybe they are in fact tears for my son, who watched his mama cry from depression and the reality that no matter how hard you pull up your threadbare bootstraps and pound the pavement and pinch pennies and beg your landlord and stand in food lines and look for jobs and affordable child care, you still won't make it. *
Tiny, also known as Lisa Gray-Garcia, is the author of the new book Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America, published by City Lights Foundation, and the founder of Poor Magazine.