Charles Ramsey, The Man Who Helped Rescue Three Cleveland Women, Becomes an Internet Meme

In a May 7th, 2013 post to Slate Aisha Harris argues that the internet's treatment of Charles Ramsey - like the video above by the Gregory Brothers - amounts to racism:

"Charles Ramsey, the man who helped rescue three Cleveland women presumed dead after going missing a decade ago, has become an instant Internet meme. It’s hardly surprising—the interviews he gave yesterday provide plenty of fodder for a viral video, including memorable soundbites (“I was eatin’ my McDonald’s”) and lots of enthusiastic gestures. But as Miles Klee and Connor Simpson have noted, Ramsey’s heroism is quickly being overshadowed by the public’s desire to laugh at and autotune his story, and that’s a shame. Ramsey has become the latest in a fairly recent trend of “hilarious” black neighbors, unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a “colorful” style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class."

Ms. Harris continues: "Before Ramsey, there was Antoine Dodson, who saved his younger sister from an intruder, only to wind up famous for his flamboyant recounting of the story to a reporter. Since Dodson’s rise to fame, there have been others: Sweet Brown, a woman who barely escaped her apartment complex during a fire last year, and Michelle Clarke, who couldn’t fathom the hailstorm that rained down in her hometown of Houston, and in turn became “the next Sweet Brown.”... 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 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.

And here's how Mr. Harris concludes her article: 'Ramsey is particularly striking in this regard, since, for a moment at least, he put the issue of race front and center himself. Describing the rescue of Amanda Berry and her fellow captives, he says, “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway! The candid statement seems to catch the reporter off guard; he ends the interview shortly afterward. And it’s notable that among the many memorable things Ramsey said on camera, this one has gotten less meme-attention than most. Those who are simply having fun with the footage of Ramsey might pause for a second to actually listen to the man. He clearly knows a thing or two about the way racism prevents us from seeing each other as people."

In my opinion, Ms. Harris's argument is hyperbolic. 

I'm not saying she's 100% or even 50% wrong. Just that she goes over the top and muddies the facts of what I see as the real story in favor of making her own ideological point. 

Like Ms. Harris, I also appreciated the sad truth in what Mr. Ramsey said about a white girl running into an unfamiliar black man's arms. In my opinion, that should be her lead. But she buries that troubling and powerful statement at the bottom of her poorly reasoned screed about racism on YouTube. 

Again, she's not 100% wrong. In my experience there are likely racists who love seeing a working class black man made fun of for the way he speaks. But I think Ms. Harris is over the top if she's arguing that only racists can enjoy the interviews that Mr. Ramsey is giving. The story he's telling concerns an incredible crime, has a happy ending and speaks of neighborly compassion that crosses racial barriers. Isn't that a large part of the reason this video is popular (and not that white people in general like to laugh at black people for their entertainment)? 

Finally, as to making fun of poor people: All great cultures make fun of working class ways of speaking (e.g., Shakespeare). It's true that Ms. Harris has picked some recent example of working class black people who've wound up online. But, by lumping Mr. Ramsey with excited crime or accident victims who are black (like Mr. Dodson), Ms. Harris actually obscures what Mr. Ramsey had to say. The wisdom that comes from the street often requires hearing voices that speak in a vernacular that may be funny to the privileged few. 

In this case, Ms. Harris's desire to make a sweeping point about poor black people paradoxically helps to blunt the importance of Mr. Ramsey's particular observation about race. It wasn't (as Ms. Harris suggests) Mr. Ramsey's actions that were "heroic." What was "genuinely heroic" was NOT helping a screaming neighbor through a locked door. Ms. Harris is so concerned with victimization that she loses the opportunity to really spotlight the most important thing that Mr. Ramsey said. Unlike Ms. Harris, Mr. Ramsey saw his opportunity to advance the dialogue about racism in a meaningful and nuanced way - and he took it. Because of what he said about race, Mr. Ramsey is in a different group than Mr. Dodson. Shame on Ms. Harris for lumping them together (just because they are black and their words inspired internet memes?). When a microphone was thrust in his face, Mr. Ramsey spoke about racism in a way that might "catch the conscience" (to quote that guy who also occasionally mocked the way poor people spoke, Shakespeare). Ms. Harris apparently wants to be that insightful about racism, but in this case, with more time and more polished language at her disposal, she failed.

No comments:

Randy Finch's Film Blog:

Thoughts from a film producer about making and distributing films.