Most of us have seen the YouTube video of rescuer Charles Ramsey discussing how he ended up saving three women and a child held captive in the basement of a house in a Cleveland neighborhood. What was so particularly amusing about this video, why was everyone laughing? The answer left me with a feeling of unease.
Perhaps the realities and horrors of the crime are just too much for us. Instead of focusing on the atrocities that took place in the basement of a Cleveland suburb for over a decade, we focus on Charles Ramsey. Local Cleveland affiliate WKYC reports that during their captivity all three women were forced to have sex with their captors, resulting in five different pregnancies over the years. Another news station, citing law enforcement officials, said that two women were held in the basement and one held upstairs. There are other reports of chains hanging from ceilings and women being paraded around on dog leashes in backyards. Amanda Berry, her daughter, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus were all held against their will until Charles Ramsey intervened.
Without question, Ramsey is deserving of the title of hero. NPR pointed out yesterday that his internet fame rivals that of Ted Williams, Antoine Dodson, or Sweet Brown. Each of these people are poor African Americans who fit neatly into conventional stereotypes and narratives. Connor Simpson for the Atlantic puts it this way, "a lower-income black man talking about a horrible crime, played on repeat at the expense of stereotypes and with the blinders fully up about the truth — it's all a little gross, no?"
It's definitely more than a little gross, Connor. Watch how easily we are able to strip the actual events people are tied to:
Popular Charles Ramsey GIF Circulating:
Ted Williams, 'The Man with the Golden Voice':
Antoine Dodson, Autonued:
Popular 'Sweet Brown' GIF:
Like Dodson, Ramsey has already been autotuned by the Gregory Brothers. Two white guys making money off of exploiting black men? Is that what is really going on here? As Miles Klee points out for BlackBook, "Perhaps it’s time for the world’s meme artists to stop assuming that any black dude getting interviewed on local news about a crime he helped to foil can be reduced to some catch phrase or in-joke."
It is worth asking why we culturally feel the need to turn each of these individuals into a meme, a GIF, a one-line soundbite. We extract from their story what we deem as necessary and discard everything else. We then distribute it around the Internet and in doing so we claim it as our own. Eventually the memes will lose all ties to their original event, and that's what I'm arguing against here. Antoine Dodson was talking about the attempted rape of his sister. Charles Ramsey was talking about the rape and captivity of three women for ten years. Instead of unpacking that, we make caricatures out of each of them.
Let's just take a look at some of the Twitter comments:
Now let's look at some people on Twitter who called out the memeification of Ramsey:
If you can't see how race and class play into each of these stories than you aren't asking yourself the right questions. Why am I laughing and what exactly am I laughing at?