All last week, the New York Times ran a five-part series on homelessness focusing on an eleven-year-old African American girl named Dasani (after the water), who has lived almost a quarter of her life in a homeless shelter with her mother, stepfather, and seven brothers and sisters. In Hollywood versions of such stories focusing on poverty and homelessness, like the 2006 hit The Pursuit of Happyness staring Will Smith and his son Jaden, there is a family at the center of the film for whom we are rooting because they are good people with unquestionable values and strong family bonds. The father in the story is homeless, yes, and raising his son in a shelter, but he is smart, credentialed, hardworking, decent, and a creative and compassionate parent. He ends up charming his way into an executive training program and at the end of the film is rewarded with the financial security we are clear he worked for. He was poor but noble, educated and hard working.
Dasani and her family are not like this. Her mother is unemployed and doesn’t even have a GED, much less a college degree, and she isn’t going to be in anyone’s executive training program because she doesn’t know how to use a computer. She is prone to drug addiction and was raised in much the same situation as she is raising her children. Dasani’s father is an on-again, off-again drug addict who doesn’t work either, and together their parenting skills are the type that serially put social service agencies on alert. It’s not clear that these poor people didn’t mostly bring this circumstance on themselves.
I have friends who for various reasons are upset that the New York Times chose this family to feature. It is tiring, they say, to have to see yet another story about a desperately poor, dysfunctional Black family. They wonder why we can’t have a broader representational lens. At the very least, they ask, can’t we balance this view with one that shows some poor white people so folks know they exist?
These conversations have started me to wonder if too many of us might not simply want these types of poor people to go away because they are not the kinds who we want to help, or for that matter, even see very often. These are the hidden poor, the hard-core unemployed poor. They live in neighborhoods and circumstances that are foreign to the rest of us, and attend schools that most of us know nothing about and who tell their children it doesn’t matter if they get suspended from school for fighting because it is more important to have street credibility than a spotless disciplinary record. But, like them or not, aren’t these the type of people who we have to be willing to at least see clearly if we are going to contemplate ways to help?
So I may lose my Black progressive card for saying so, but I think the series the New York Times ran on Dasani and homelessness is important, even though Rupert Murdoch's New York Post dismissed it as “The New York Times' homeless hooey” and said the series was flawed because the family had support and choices yet made the wrong ones. Of course, poverty isn't just structural, or about choices. It's a complicated dance between the two. And though none of us want Black people to continue to be the poster children for the poor, underachieving, and dysfunctional, I'm not quite sure how it's possible to talk about poverty and homelessness and their consequences in New York City and not talk about Black and Latino people, specifically because those are the folks who constitute the majority of that population.
Which is to say, going out of our way to integrate representations of this group might make us feel better, but does it get Dasani and the 22,000 children like her any closer to a childhood that resembles the one we want for our own children? Shouldn’t that really be the focus of our dis-ease?
I couldn’t help but think about which poor we are most interested in championing when I read Charles Blow’s most recent New York Times column “The Appalling Stance of Rand Paul.” In it, he is responding to recent statements by Congressman Paul about ending unemployment benefits paid beyond twenty-six weeks because to not do so was a “disservice” to the unemployed. Blow responds:
We have gone from a war on poverty in this country to a war on the poor, in which poor people are routinely demonized and scapegoated and attacked, and conservatives have led the charge. They paint the poor as takers, work averse, in need of motivation and incentive. Well, that is simply not my experience with poverty. I have been poor, and both my parents worked. I grew up among poor people, and almost all of them worked. The problem wasn’t lack of effort, but low pay. Folks simply couldn’t make enough to shake the specter of need.
Unfortunately, Dasani’s family seems to come uncomfortably close to the stereotype Blow is dismissing and replacing his experiences with poverty. Unlike his family who were hard-working but underpaid, Dasani’s family actually do appear to be “work averse” and in need of some type of more well thought-out plan for their collective future. And as much as we might want families like this to move out of the spotlight so that we can substitute them with more culturally and socially acceptable representations of poverty, wishing them into invisibility simply doesn’t make it so.
The most poignant moment in the entire series is in one of the video clips when Dasani recites Maya Angelou's poem, Phenomenal Woman from memory while at the same time negotiating her babysitting responsibilities for her younger siblings. This after she was just quoted in the article as saying that she hates Black History Month because all they ever get to hear is the same "crystal stair" poem by Langston Hughes and she wants more. Clearly this young woman becoming, is already more than we believe her circumstance has made her.
This is a child that has been written off as part of the "lost generation" and I wonder if we have become so invested in keeping poverty hidden and Black realities sanitized that even this small window will not lead to organized outrage, or more than a passing, slightly interested glance. In the afterward to the series—which was fifteen months in the making and is the longest piece of investigative reporting the Times has ever run—the reporter, Andrea Elliott, tells us that since the story began running, strangers have stopped Dasani and her family to give them money and the Times contracted with a charitable organization to set-up a trust fund for the children. All of that is wonderful, of course, but as Cornel West and others have pointed out, charity is not justice. Isn’t it time we asked ourselves if it is even possible for families like this to live in a just society if so many of us want to deny their existence?
Noliwe M. Rooks is an associate professor and interim director of graduate studies in Cornell University’s Africana Studies department. An interdisciplinary scholar, she works on the racial implications of beauty, fashion and adornment; racial inequality in education; race, migration and urbanization and Black women's studies. She has received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Educational Research Fund and the Mellon Foundation. The author of three books, including White Money/Black Power, she is currently working on a project that looks at the role of racial segregation in the dismantling of public education in the United States.