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.