The Outlandish Heroes Of The Internet

Gene Demby wonders whether we are laughing with or at Charles Ramsey, the man who helped three women escape from their captor in Cleveland:

On the face of it, the memes, the Auto-Tune remixes and the laughing seem purely celebratory. But what feels like celebration can also carry with it the undertone of condescension. Amid the hood backdrop — the gnarled teeth, the dirty white tee, the slang, the shout-out to McDonald’s — we miss the fact that Charles Ramsey is perfectly lucid and intelligent. “I have a feeling half the ppl who say ‘Oooh I love watching him on the internet!’ would turn away if they saw him on the street,” the writer Sarah Kendzior tweeted. [Antoine] Dodson and [Sweet] Brown and Ramsey are all up in our GIFs and all over the blogosphere because they’re not the type of people we’re used to seeing or hearing on our TVs. They’re actually not the type of people we’re used to seeing or hearing at all, which might explain why we get so silly when they make one of their infrequent forays into our national consciousness.

Aisha Harris is on the same page:

It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform. Even before the genuinely heroic Ramsey came along, some viewers had expressed concern that the laughter directed at people like Sweet Brown plays into the most basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the “ghetto,” socially out of step with the rest of educated America. Black or white, seeing [Michelle Clark] and Dodson merely as funny instances of random poor people talking nonsense is disrespectful at best. And shushing away the question of race seems like wishful thinking.

But Elahe Izadi thinks Ramsey can be “both a hero and a meme”:

While it may feel uncomfortable to focus on Ramsey’s funnier lines, to pretend otherwise—that there was no humor whatsoever in his interviews—is to ignore a big chunk of who Ramsey is.

He repeatedly told his tale with a plain-spokenness that feels fully him and unrehearsed; he wasn’t performing. He also expressed exasperation at the mini-media firestorm: When a local TV reporter asked him to tell the story once more, he replied, “Again?!” And his most-quoted line was a refreshingly unsubtle commentary about racism in America: “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here—dead giveaway, dead giveaway,” he said. As the reporter began to move away, Ramsey finished his thought. “Either she’s homeless or she’s got problems. That’s the only reason she’d run toward a black man.”

In a hyper-controlled media environment, people long for that kind of unscripted “real talk” from genuine people who aren’t trying to manipulate their images for personal gain. And that’s a big part of the reason why Ramsey is compelling. He didn’t seek this fame, and so far he’s said he doesn’t want reward money for his actions (and even if he did, we could hardly begrudge him that). Rather than exploring Ramsey just for laughs, a meme done right could be a way of celebrating him for who he is: a hero who helped rescue kidnapped women.