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Lessons from Cleveland

Posted by Elwin Green on May 8, 2013 at 2:40 PM

Late last night, I watched the video of Charles Ramsey, the man who rescued three women from their imprisonment in his next-door neighbor's house.


I had deliberately refrained from viewing it for a couple of reasons - 1) Homewood and Pittsburgh by themselves generally produce more news than I can handle; 2) I was waiting for The Virality Cycle (tm) to play itself out.


The Virality Cycle (tm) works like this:

1 - The event.

An average Joe or Joanne does something remarkable. On Monday afternoon, Mr. Ramsey rescued the women.


2 - The video.

Joe/Joanne is captured on video, most often in a local newscast, talking about the event in a way that others find engaging. Monday evening, Mr. Ramsey appeared on the local news, with video by Cleveland station WEWS having the most immediate impact.


3 - The mashup/meme.

The video goes viral, aided by people autotuning it, adding captions to photos from it, and otherwise slicing and dicing it, primarily for comic effect. The day after Mr. Ramsey appeared on the local news, The Gregory Brothers served up their autotune mashup of the interview on YouTube. As of this writing, it has 288,841 views. The original video, uploaded by WEWS, has 2.8 million.

At this point in the cycle, Joe/Joanne typically has no control over his/her image, and others may not only reproduce or modify that image at will, but may make money doing so. We could spend hours on the issues raised here, and an intellectual property attorney could make a mint providing solutions.

4 - The backlash.

Observers express distress that Joe/Joanne is being exploited for others' amusement. Here I must interject that The Virality Cycle seems to especially attract, or by attracted by, videos of highly animated Black people who appear to be low-income and not well-educated. So, by 5 pm yesterday, Slate had run a piece on "The Troubling Viral Trend of the 'Hilarious' Black Neighbor," citing not only Mr. Ramsey's instance, but those of Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown and Michelle Clark. And this photo is circulating on Facebook:


5 - The follow-on

National media converge to ask Joe/Joanne how his/her life has been changed by the attention they've received. And/or he or she gets new job offers. This doesn't always happen. It may have happened best with Antoine Dodson, who had the wit to hire a manager, and rode his Internet fame all the way to an appearance on Carson Daly's 2010 New Year's Eve special - not bad for someone whom the world had not known of five months earlier.


6 - The fadeaway.

The world and the internet turn their attention elsewhere and Joe/Joanne returns to whatever remains of their normal life. With Mr. Ramsey, we aren't there yet. My guess is that we will be relatively quickly, because he seems to have no interest in the attention.

We seem be poised between 4 and 5. Interestingly, Anderson Cooper interviewed Mr. Ramsey, but that interview was basically a retelling of the event, rather than a look at how Mr. Ramsey's life had changed as a result. Which is understandable, given that barely two days had passed, if that.


Mr. Ramsey was still animated in his conversation with Cooper, but while some may find him comical, I find his comments thought-provoking.


In the first interview, his statement that "I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms," speaks volumes about the state of race relations in Cleveland, if not in the country.


When Cooper asks him what it feels like to know that he was "living next to this for a year," Mr. Ramsey replies: "See, that's why now I'm having trouble sleeping. See, up until yesterday, the only thing that kept me from losing sleep was the lack of money. See what I'm saying? So now that that's going on, and I could have done this last year, not this hero stuff, just do the right thing "


When Cooper speaks of a possible reward, Mr. Ramsey pulls his paycheck from is pocket and says, "Take that reward and give it to (the women)"


Then he says that if he had known that his neighbor, Ariel Castro, was having sex with Amanda Berry, "I would be facing triple life."


All of these comments go to the quality of community and the question of what it means to be a neighbor. And they make me ask myself, "If someone were being held captive in a house on my block, would I even know?"

I need to create a better answer than the one I could give myself now.


Mr. Ramsey dismisses the description of himself as a hero, saying, "Bro, I'm a Christian, an American, and just like you." But he also said that sometimes we have to put away the feeling of, "I don't want to get in nobody's business."


"You have to have cajones, bro."


Lord, haste the day when more Christian men connect being Christian with having cajones. Haste the day when more people view actions like his as a natural result of their faith and their citizenship.

How can we make Homewood a community where something like the imprisonment of three women for a decade can't happen?

Categories: Citizenship and Governance

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Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
10:35 PM on May 8, 2013 
First of all -- this is a very thoughtful post. I enjoyed reading it and it made me think.

I have mixed feelings about these characters. On the one hand Antoine Dodson, Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown, and the Kabooya lady strike me as being straight-up minstrels, milking stereotypes of working class Black people for all they are worth.

In African American communities have been particularly sensitive about "coonery" and buffoonery that reinforces racial stereotypes in the media because, historically, these comic images were used to promote the ideology of White supremacy. We have felt the social and political consequences of the success of these comedic character types.

On the other hand, famous Black buffoons, such as Stepin (Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) Fetchit exploited their image in order to build minor empires for themselves during times when this was rare for Blacks.

After he retired Stepin Fetchit became a bit of a Black nationalist, and even during his career he was the first Black actor to get an onscreen credit.

Did Fetchit represent progress or reaction?

It might be considered progress that Fetchit became the first Black millionaire and that he got his screen credit, but it might also be reactionary that he thrived off of the promotion of stereotypes at a time when many White Americans were inclined to believe these stereotypes were accurate portrayals of the mentality and capabilities of Blacks.

Even Herman Cain, a man who might be considered the closest thing to a Black buffoon in politics (I don't include Clarence Thomas because, frankly, brother Clarence just aint that funny) was able to use his buffoonery to be taken seriously enough by the reactionary core of the Republican Party so that they were willing to make him the front runner for the presidency for brief period -- before he did himself in through his own mismanagement of the press.

In terms of buffoonery followed by epiphanies, it seems that Dodson has recently undergone a conversion of sorts and embraces a form of Black nationalism while renouncing his previous homosexuality. This recent conversion has itself become the focus of a new round of laughter, mockery and entertainment on the internet.

Is Dodson doing this to squeeze out another 15 minutes of fame? I don't know -- I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Self-exploitation is nothing new though, and I am reluctant to hold it against Dodson, Ramsey, Brown, and the Kabooya lady. As Frank Zappa used to point out, no group can have exclusive control over how it is portrayed in the media.

Whether or not it is right for these internet sensations to provide content for the nation to laugh at the Black working class, as "Black" and "working class," I really can't say. Other regional and ethnic groups do the same -- just drive through Appalachia and one will see how much money some "mountain people" are making off of "Hillbilly" stereotypes.

I guess I don't see myself as having a stake in either defending or criticizing these characters. My feeling is that they are now getting paid to do what they do -- even though this may not have been what they had in mind when they first came to the attention of the media.

Let them use some of that money to defend themselves, if they feel the need to. One thing is for sure, we can't prevent Black people for undermining the image of community in mass media. If we could prevent this from happening then nobody would ever have heard of Lil Wayne.
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
10:53 PM on May 8, 2013 
Oops, but I didn't address your main point, which is what Ramsey's interviews represent in terms of community and neighborliness. It's funny, I was thinking the exact same thing when I heard the interview. My neighbors see much much less often than Ramsey saw his neighbor -- and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's neighborhoods seemed to think, as Ramsey did, that they knew their neighbor very well -- yet they never knew this other side of him. How well do we know our neighbors, really? What does this estrangement from our neighbors cost us in terms of our ability to prevent harm from coming to others? These are good questions and things we have to think about....
Reply Elwin Green
12:47 AM on May 9, 2013 
I don't view Mr. Ramsey as a minstrel; I think people who saw that first video, or even the one with Anderson Cooper, as primarily entertaining are simply showing their own shallowness. I see a man who is brave, kind, and sensitive - and whose mode of communication is highly sophisticated (but that's a subject for a separate piece). I also don't see where he's engaging in self-exploitation - I admit, I have seen only the two interviews I mention here; but in them, at least, he seems to me to be just a man telling his story, with no intent of getting paid. Quite the opposite of Li'l Wayne.
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
3:04 AM on May 9, 2013 
Right, I agree that Ramsey doesn't seem to be interested in exploiting his 15 minutes of fame, nor does he seem, at this point, interested in getting paid -- but what do you make of his comments at the end of his first interview, where he says "Bro, I knew somethin' was wrong when a pretty White girl runs into a Black mans arms. Dead giveaway. Deeeead giveaway."

The interviewer tries to break him off: "Charles thank you very much," but by this time Ramsey has elicited laughter from the (mostly White) crowd around him. Now he is in full performance mode and he continues, "Because either she homeless or she got problems -- that's the only reason why she runnin' to a Black man."

I'm wondering what century he's living in.

None of this is to take anything away from the character he has shown in his willingness to get involved, his selflessness in saying that the reward money should go to the girls who were kidnapped, or the insight he showed when he said that before this event he used to stay awake at night worrying about financial problems, now he stays awake at night wondering why he didn't realize what was going on in the house next door to him sooner.

But, yes, I do think he was playing to the crowd toward the end of that first interview in a buffoonish sort of way -- and I think the notion that a white girl who runs into a black man's arms must be homeless or have problems reflects a notion of race relations in America that's a bit out dated.
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
3:24 AM on May 9, 2013 
I am looking forward to your piece on the sophistication of the style of communication exhibited by these newly-minted public figures who have gone viral on the internet.

Some people, both Black and White, are upset over the fact that these videos have gone viral, as exhibited by the piece in Slate yesterday, because they believe that people are laughing at these interviewees, and not laughing with them. A second group, mostly Black, may be embarrassed by the animated speech exhibited in these clips -- but we had the same debates, within our community, back in the 1920s over the use of the vernacular in literature. A third group wants to celebrate our stylized speech patterns and draw even more attention them, as Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston used to do 90 years ago.

Personally, I don't believe in trying to suppress the exhibition of these speech patterns. It would be impossible to do this even if one thought it was desirable. I think the challenge facing us now is to teach young people to be conscious of using these patterns of speech, when they use them, and not to be imprisoned by them. It is to be able to appreciate stylized forms of speech as a deliberate strategy of communication and to be able to switch back and forth between animated patterns of speech and the communicative norms of the mainstream.
Reply Elwin Green
1:40 PM on May 9, 2013 
Mr. Hawkins (or should I say, "Hawk"? - hehe) - you seriously posted at 3:24 am? When do you sleep, sir?

I'm not as verbally adroit as you, so, as some folks might say, it's gon take a minute..

[C. Matthew Hawkins]
I am looking forward to your piece on the sophistication of the style of communication exhibited by these newly-minted public figures who have gone viral on the internet.

Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
10:26 PM on May 9, 2013 
[Elwin Green]
Mr. Hawkins (or should I say, "Hawk"? - hehe) - you seriously posted at 3:24 am? When do you sleep, sir?

But Elwin, I'm a Vampire....

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In October 2005, after a bullet came through his living room window, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Elwin Green began writing "My Homewood," the first blog on the P-G's website. For 4 1/2 years, "My Homewood" shared stories of tragedy and beauty, of perplexity and hope - stories that live again in "The Homewood Chronicles."

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