Details are slowly emerging from the Cleveland kidnapping case and they’re absolutely horrific. Neighbors report having seen naked women on leashes at night in the backyard of the home where the women were later found. But the surprising star of the media frenzy surrounding the case continues to be Charles Ramsey, the black neighbor who initiated the victims’ freedom and whose recounting of the incident has seen gone viral.
In an interview (posted above) with ABC’s Cleveland affiliate on Monday, Ramsey described how he was busy “eating [his] McDonald’s” when he heard a woman (later identified as Amanda Berry who, along with the two other women in the home, had been missing for a decade) screaming for help. Ramsey said he knew something was wrong when “a pretty little white girl runs into a black man’s arms.” It was a streak of humor in an otherwise overwhelmingly bleak situation.
But it’s also a caricature that had also become all too familiar on the Internet. As Aisha Harris wrote at Slate, videos like Ramsey’s have become part of a troubling viral trend that’s loaded with racist signifiers:
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.”
Over at NPR’s Code Switch blog, Gene Demby asks if we’re laughing with Ramsey or at him. And the answer’s pretty clear:
Very quickly, they went from individuals who lived on America’s margins to embodying a weird, new kind of fame. Williams ended up being offered work doing voiceovers for radio. Dodson leveraged his newfound notoriety to get his family out of the projects.
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.
No matter how heartbreaking the story, we still love to laugh at black people.