by Dr Boyce Watkins
One of my favorite actors on the planet is the great Will Smith. Nearly every movie he puts out turns to gold, and his talent is second-to-none.
During the Lexington, KY stop of The Black Economic Empowerment Tour, I finally watched the film, “The pursuit of Happyness,” that Smith made a few years ago. Yea, I know I’m late to the party, but I eventually catch up on all the good movies on Netflix.
The story was about Chris Gardner, a black man who struggled with homelessness and personal devastation as he fought his way into a company to become a stock broker. Gardner had to overcome one struggle after another in order to feed his son and keep a roof over their heads. He was rejected from jobs, couldn’t pay the rent, was jailed for unpaid parking tickets, and endured countless personal battles, most of which had to do with the fact that he had practically no money in his pockets.
What I saw in the film was a black man who had very little access to his dignity because he didn’t have access to money. There’s even one scene where Gardner, an intelligent, married father, had to run away from a cab driver because he couldn’t pay the $20 fare. There was another scene where he and his son were “blessed” with an opportunity to attend a 49ers game that they couldn’t afford, all because a wealthy white man decided to take them. Finally, there was the scene when he nearly lost one of his best friends because he owed him $14. The image of two black men nearly coming to blows over $14 was sad and painful to watch.
While the tale was a reminder of the importance of hard work and determination, one thing really bothered me about this movie: The majority of Christopher’s “pursuit of happyness” depended upon how close he could get to white people. Why? Well, because white people controlled most of the institutions with which Gardner needed to be affiliated in order to pay the rent.
Rather than being able to create his own job, Christopher often spent his days begging for an opportunity to work with white males at Dean Witter. He had to ask mostly white doctors to buy the x-ray machines he was selling. His entire life was torn apart because no one would give him a job that allowed him to feed his family, to the point that he was emasculated in front of his wife.
If this can happen to a brilliant man like Gardner, imagine what the average black person goes through? There has GOT to be a better way to survive.
As a black man, I honestly find it nothing less than depressing to conclude that my ability to provide for my family might be dependent upon whether or not white people choose to be nice to me. In fact, many white people don’t like me because I get angry about slavery, Jim Crow, racial oppression, chronic black unemployment, police brutality and mass incarceration. The only way I could get them to like me is if I smile, bowed and pretended that all of these problems don’t exist. This is one of the problems that black men meet in the workplace: If you don’t keep grinning ear-to-ear and remain meek and polite in a culture that can be blatantly offensive to you, then you usually won’t get the job.
The ugly truth is that the source of most black poverty in America is that for hundreds of years, others have stolen our wealth and economic opportunities. Our ancestors worked very hard to build institutions, preserve wealth and leave something for their children. The problem is that other people stole it from them and their descendants often flaunt it in our faces. When you evaluate a person’s worth by how much money they have, then you are always going to conclude that whites are better than black people, mainly because white people own an unfair majority of the wealth in this country.
As a result of this disproportionate distribution of wealth, black people often find themselves like Chris Gardner: Running from one struggle to the next, begging for just any opportunity to be affiliated with a majority-white institution that usually only allows one black person through the door. What about everyone else? What about those of us who are not able to get that one job that the corporation offers? Perhaps they’ll just end up in prison. Many of them do. Most people don’t have the patience, intelligence or determination of Chris Gardner, essentially making it a crime to be average.
My life became far more fulfilling when I learned how to create my own job instead of hoping that my oppressors suddenly decide that they want to be my friend. By learning the fundamentals of business ownership and development, we can escape the grip of white supremacy as the determinant of our personal “success.” I refuse to define my so-called “success” by whether or not I am accepted into white institutions that only hire one black person every five years. Instead, our measure of “success” should be determined by how hard we work to develop institutions that create opportunities for people in our own communities.
Both Will Smith and Chris Gardner are remarkable men. “Pursuit of Happyness” is an amazing film. But rather than idealizing the “one man who made it” model of economic and personal success, we must find other models that are inclusive of everyone else. Also, instead of allowing our personal success and empowerment to be linked to whether or not somebody gives us a job, we must instead learn entrepreneurship as one of the keys to our survival. A black child who grows up learning how to start multiple businesses doesn’t usually end up begging anyone for a job. Instead, he’s got options that allow him to preserve his personal dignity.
That is the true pursuit of “Happyness.”