You are here:

Why America turned Cleveland hero into a mocking Internet meme

If we were holding out for a hero, it obviously was not one who looked and sounded like Charles Ramsey.

The man who became a hero because he helped saved the three women held captive in a house in Cleveland for over 10 years is now a media sensation for all the wrong reasons.

He is an internet meme. He is a thumbs-up GIF. He is an auto tunes remix.

None of it has anything to do with what the man did. It has everything to do with what the man sounded like on television. This is the hero as clown.

As Aisha Harris writes on Slate this is “the troubling viral trend of the ‘hilarious’ black neighbour.”

Before “I-was-eatin-my-McDonalds” Ramsey there was “I-didn’t-grab-no-shoes-or-nothin’-Jesus” Sweet Brown who gave a dramatic account of escaping an apartment fire. Or Michelle Clark whose over the top description of a hailstorm to a newschannel went viral.

They have all become writes Harris “unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a “colorful” style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class.”

But Ramsey is a little different. He is not someone who is seeking out the television camera for his 15 minutes of fame. He cannot be accused of hamming it up so that his description of the same hailstorm or apartment fire all his neighbours went through ends up on the evening news.

Ramsey is the bona fide hero of this story. The young woman rushed into his arms. If he had decided not to get involved, or worse told the man who owned the house and with whom he had shared barbecue and salsa about it, the story could have taken a horrible turn.

This May 6, 2013 file photo shows neighbour Charles Ramsey speaking to media near the home where missing women Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight were rescued in Cleveland. Associated Press.

This May 6, 2013 file photo shows neighbour Charles Ramsey speaking to media near the home where missing women Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight were rescued in Cleveland. Associated Press.

A media landscape that’s always on the lookout for the next viral meme trivialises everything he did by reducing it to a joke that’s all about his folksy language, his grammar and yes, face it, his race.

A black man, who does not sound like Bill Cosby or Morgan Freeman, as an all-American hero is clearly something tough for America to digest.

And none of these internet jokes and memes take on the man’s pithiest observation:

"Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms," he said. "Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Deeeeeeeeeeaaaaaad giveaway. Either she's homeless, or she's got problems. That's the only reason she'd run to a black man."

While there are plenty of Autotunes that play on the “dead giveaway” few want to admit that in a few sentences, under a barrage of media questioning this man summed up race relations in America in a nutshell.

“To my mind, Charles Ramsey is the Chris Rock or Eddie Murphy of his moment – using comedy to make a keen and perfectly accurate observation of the nature of racial inequality in America,” writes Nanajala Nyabola in The Guardian . “Just because he's making it in an unfamiliar language and with an emphatic tone doesn't make it any less poignant or valid.”

Now it turns out that the man himself has a rap sheet – for domestic violence including a felony conviction for battering his wife. In a way that’s just more mocking fodder for those who want to knock him off his pedestal. He becomes the hero with clay feet, more in keeping with a poor working class mixed neighbourhood image of broken-down cars, dilapidated houses, and drinking beer on the stoop. It’s almost a gotcha moment.

But why does it matter? In a way isn’t it even more indicative of the fact that human beings have a certain basic humanity no matter what their rap sheets say. So even a man who had himself been convicted of domestic violence went that bit out of his way to help another person in distress, something he thought was a domestic violence situation. He didn’t stop to think that his own past might suddenly become media fodder. In India, we read reports all the times of passers by who ignore someone else in need whether it’s a traffic accident victim or the naked victim of a gangrape.

Speaking to CNN-IBN, Kanhaiya Lal, an accident victim, said, "People must care more. They must stop by when they see others in trouble.”

Charles Ramsey did just that. He was not looking to be a hero either – trying to save someone from a burning house. In that instant in which we decide to help someone desperately pleading or look away because we are in a hurry or we don’t know what it’s all about or we don’t want any trouble, he chose to just help. And he didn’t think about his own troubled history. In a way, that makes Charles Ramsey more of a hero than less of one.