From the Black People are Awesome Files: (And I Miss My) Uncle Charles, Y’all
Charles Ramsey is my dude. He’s currently in the throes of his fifteen minutes of fame, since he had the nerve to care about his neighbor, who turned out to be Amanda Berry, a girl who had been kidnapped a decade ago. Since his interview on local Cleveland television, Charles Ramsey has been autotuned, memed, and remixed by the internet in myriad ways. Such is life for regular folk who become internet sensations.
Of course, much of the “smart” response to Ramsey’s fame is concerned with the why of it. Bloggers have taken on the responsibility of reminding us that Ramsey’s fame is largely due to the fact that he is black and poor and seemingly performs in a way that simultaneously attracts and humors white gazers. And you know what? They’re right. Ramsey and Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson can in some ways credit their internet stardom to the fact that they satisfy our racialized, gendered, and sexualized voyeurism. We are charmed by headscarves, lisps, and digressions about barbecues.
In a way, the response from the internet cognoscenti attempts to work as a kind of elixir or at least a counter to the narrative implied by the memes. Yes, saying Ramsey’s et. al. fame is about a certain kind of racial desire may awaken the curiosity of one person who would otherwise uncritically chuckle at the Ramsey meme. But what it also does, it seems to me, is scantily cover a deep-seated trepidation, anxiety other black folks have when a certain kind of black person gets taped on front street. The impulse to remind us that Ramsey is a racialized and classed spectacle seems to also be rooted in a desire to appear respectable, a yearning for certain black folks not to give white folks another example of a stereotype that would seemingly justify racist behavior.
And so, these reminders residually suggest that black folks who have embraced Ramsey should consider falling back, or more privately celebrate him. Because, I suppose, if white folks might think we are laughing and enjoying Ramsey for the same reasons they are. But you know what? I’m not here for that. My response to Charles Ramsey will not be tempered because white people are watching. Had Charles Ramsey had on a suit and tie and veneers when he was interviewed, it would have given many of us a sigh of relief but really done nothing to impact white folks’ racism. We’ve tried that already. The Chicago Defender tried to tell newly arrived black southerners how to act in public and Red Summer still happened. Black folks marched in their Sunday best and spoke “well” and fire hoses and canines still happened. Efforts at respectability have never assuaged the monstrosity that is racism. So why should any of us pretend that not given Charles Ramsey a pound if we ever saw him would be the thing “holding us back”?
I’m here for Charles Ramsey because he is a hero. Because he has had his own struggles and has seemed to recover from them. Because he cares about his neighbor. Because the sirens he hears in the midst of the interview give him pause. Because his commentary on race and class during that interview is harder than what most public intellectuals are serving. Because he refused to code switch. Because he once again proves how awesome black people are. Because he tells a good fucking story. I’m here for Charles Ramsey and I don’t care who knows it. They can laugh for whatever reasons they choose. I cannot allow their actions to influence mine in this way, too. So while some folks are consumed by why and whether some people are laughing at Charles, I just can’t be consumed with that anymore. I’m trying to eat barbecue with Charles Ramsey. And hear his stories. Which I’m sure are astonishing.