Charles Ramsey became an Internet sensation overnight. What does that say about us?
The first message arrived in my inbox just after 9 a.m. It read: “this guy Charles found the three girls in cleveland. all he was doing was eating his mcdonalds.” The attached video—which will now live on in Internet lore—showed a black man, perhaps in his early 50s, booming with self-assurance, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers as he retold his tale of helping Amanda Berry to freedom (Berry, along with Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, had been missing for over 10 years).
But Ramsey’s heroics, if we are to call his actions that, were soon drowned out by the Internet’s craving for a new star. In a matter of hours he had turned from self-effacing Cleveland resident into caricature. By mid-morning Ramsey was the number one trending topic on Twitter and a "Charles Ramsey for President" Facebook account had been created. “Videos of his interviews have gone viral because of his colorful storytelling ability and his accidental and not-so-subtle commentary about the state of race relations in America,” Lynette Holloway wrote on The Root.
I watched the video over and over, delighting in this man’s proud moment, conscious that Ramsey would soon be all over the web—in the best and worst ways possible. I had become complicit in this meme-ifying of Ramsey, too. “So many quotables in this video. LOL,” I wrote back to my co-worker. Instantly I thought of Sweet Brown, the woman who popularized “Ain’t nobody got time for that,” and of Antoine Dodson. I knew Ramsey would meet a similar fate. I began to wonder: Why do we gravitate toward figures like Ramsey and Sweet Brown? What, if anything, does this say about us?
The Internet’s desire to turn Ramsey into a meme is not rooted in a “darker narrative about race and class,” as NPR reports, but rather our sick need to parody, to make light of moments that should matter, moments that should carry much more weight than we ascribe to them. The sad reality of today's news: the escape of Berry, DeJesus and Knight has become a minor talking point to Ramsey's growing celebrity. Therein lies the problem. There is no grand revelation in my saying this because this is how the Internet works in 2013. This is the world we live in.
Minutes later I received a response from my co-worker. “Waiting for someone to auto tune him,” he wrote.