Over the past several days, we’ve heard a great deal, about the happy (if you can call the tend of ten years of torment straightforwardly happy) ending to a horrific triple—or maybe quadruple—kidnapping in Cleveland, and the man who brought it about. Charles Ramsey, who lived near the house in which Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus were held, raped, and tortured for a decade, became a hero when he responded to Berry’s calls for help, thinking he was intervening in a simple domestic violence incident. And he has become an internet celebrity thanks to an interview he gave about the case afterwards. The speed with which the latter status has eclipsed the former has been striking, and raised interesting and important questions about our willingness to turn people of color into memes rather than heroes.
At NPR, Gene Demby points out that the ways in which men like Ramsey become memes, and the grounds on which they’re treated as if they’re likable, are reductive rather than respectful, cute rather than heroic—and when those images crumble, the credit we extend to them and the rewards that follow tend to disappear:
But race and class seemed to be central to the celebrity of all these people. They were poor. They were black. Their hair was kind of a mess. And they were unashamed. That’s still weird and chuckle-worthy.
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.
And at Slate, Aisha Harris breaks down the ways in which the “memorable soundbites” uttered by people like Ramsey or Antoine Dodson becomes the most memorable thing about them, rather than the acts that brought them to public attention in the first place. She writes:
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.
I think both Harris and Demby are correct, and that it’s worth sorting out both a conscious and unconscious set of impulses that are at work in meme-ifying people in these particular circumstances.
The conscious impulse is that people like memes because they’re fun, and because they reveal moments of delight or sharply spoken truths hiding in plain sight. There is something genuinely striking about our spontaneous reactions in a moment of crisis, tension, or exhilaration. Ramsey’s mention of McDonald’s, his breakdown of the racial politics of his city and the event that made him famous, and his succinct explanation of what he was doing at the moment when his life became suddenly and dramatically different were appealing because his interview fell into the category of both delightful and truth-telling. Antoine Dodson’s call to “hide your kids, hide your wife,” warning other people in his community to be prepared for the kind of invasion his family experienced, was enjoyable as spontaneous speech, an undeniably rhythmic response to a terrible situation.
Less consciously—and in addition and in relation to race—I think there are two other factors that contribute to the memification of people who become famous in tragic circumstances. First, focusing on heroes or witnesses is a way of looking less directly at survivors and crimes. And focusing on heroes or witnesses as comic relief is a way of feeling the impact of these crimes less fully. Ramsey’s discussion of McDonald’s is quite literally comic relief in a situation we all justifiably feel horrible about, whether because the prospect of three people conspiring to keep women as sex slaves in their basement is too awful to understand, or because the fact that the Cleveland police seemed to have missed multiple opportunities to free those women sooner. Focusing on the language of Dodson’s prescription for his neighbors is a way of forgetting the reason he issued it in the first place: that he believed women and children in his community were in danger of sexual assault.
Second, focusing on what’s funny in after-the-fact interviews with heroes in terrible circumstances, rather than what made them heroic in the moment is a way to avoid adjusting our attitudes about what makes someone a hero. By rights, it should be the act itself and not the package it’s wrapped up in. Charles Ramsey is a hero because he intervened in what he thought was a simple domestic violence situation, and ended up being something far worse. The fact that he happens to be poor, or good on television, or a fan of McDonald’s has absolutely no relation to that act, or, as Zerlina Maxwell put it, “Seeing all these Charles Ramsey articles and feeling like it’s possible to laugh with him AND think he’s a hero. It’s not one or the other.” Antoine Dodson is a hero because he intervened to help prevent a sexual assault, and the cut of his hair, his desire to become a singer, or The Gregory Brothers’ faculties with Auto-Tune don’t somehow mitigate his actions on that night in 2010.
But focusing on the things that some find laughable about people who do heroic things is a way of distracting ourselves from the fact that heroism is a more widely available commodity than we often acknowledge. Being brave or helping other people isn’t something you can do only if you have a particular skin color, or if you wear a uniform, or if you have financial resources to do something baroque. All it requires is a willingness to extend yourself, or maybe even to take some personal risk, on behalf of someone else. You can do that if you’re gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor, male or female. Acknowledging that both puts more responsibility on all of us to be prepared to step up more actively in our own communities. And requires us to extend more trust to and faith in our neighbors, to unlearn patterns of suspicion and distrust and accept that the people we perceive as threats could actually be saviors.