Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Internet > Voice of “Authenticity” in the Media: The Strange Case of Charles Ramsey

Voice of “Authenticity” in the Media: The Strange Case of Charles Ramsey

In the midst of the bizarre and incredible story of the escape of Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus, and Michele Knight from 10-year forcible confinement at the hands of the Castro brothers in Cleveland, Ohio, one unlikely player in the saga has grabbed the spotlight. The Castros’ neighbour Charles Ramsey helped Berry and a young girl escape from imprisonment (dropping his Big Mac and kicking in a door to do it) and joined them in calling 911 to summon the police to free the rest of the captives. Hailed as an everyday hero by a media culture that loves to anoint such figures, Ramsey gave a television interview after the event that has already become an internet meme of notable proportions:

Seized upon by the online remix culture almost immediately, Ramsey’s notable catchphrases were macro’ed and his expressive proletarian cadence duly autotuned before you could say, “Hide your kids, hide your wife”. Indeed, Antoine Dodson’s enduring internet meme-fame seems the closest analogue to Ramsey’s, and shares in its shaded outline of doubtful white guilt at the perceived exploitation and mockery of working-class African-American vernacular speech and endemic social problems. There is more than a hint of racial prejudice in the remix reaction to his entertaining interview, certainly; it’s not possible to locate the response entirely in a non-racist context, nor is it prudent to tar all responses with the brush of prejudice.

But there is also a strong underlying note of praise for Ramsey’s “heroism” (a term that Ramsey has waved aside with a modesty born out of circumstances of socio-economic deprivation) that defuses even the most flippant and thoughtless of online racially-tinged jokes. “This man did a fine thing, and he’s hilarious and expressive and breathtakingly honest!” would seem to be a fair summation of the lion’s share of the chatter around his media appearances. His longer and more thoughtful chat with CNN’s Anderson Cooper embedded below displays these qualities away from the madhouse atmosphere of his famous man-on-the-street interview. This is what seems to be grabbing people most about Ramsey, as it does in differing ways in Dodson’s case and in the cases of most of the other viral media clips (which mostly come from the less-filtered quasi-reality of local television news). What’s notable in a media culture of canned responses and cliched euphemisms is how real Ramsey sounds, how authentic he comes across as being.

Or perhaps I should type “real” and “authentic”. I’ve previously considered in this space how these terms have become detached from their prevalent meanings by their use and dissemination as dominant marketing tropes in the discourse of consumer capitalism. From this perspective, it may not really mean anything to say that Charles Ramsey comes across as “authentic”. Even the more precise and less abused adjective “honest” (so often misconstrued as an excuse for the utterance of unfashionable discriminatory opinions, mind you) does not quite serve our purposes, but we have to make do with it nonetheless.

The bald dude behind him with the shades probably has his own meme by now, too.

And there is a guileless honesty to Ramsey’s view of the strange events that he finds himself a part of that many appear to find highly refreshing in a popular discourse marked by linguistic obfuscation and diversionary statements. Most noted is his forthright statement at the end of his initial interview about race relations: “I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Dead giveaway!” The (white) reporter responds to some inner warning (or to his producer’s voice in his earpiece) and cuts the discussion short at that moment, confirming that this assessment of racial issues, of the inability of fellow humans to see beyond outward prejudices except in moments of great stress and trauma, cuts a little too close to the bone.

But Ramsey’s growing share of televised appearances is full of such quotidian observations, such (perish the diminishing term) homespun folk wisdom. His writerly details about the inoffensive appearance of his deeply disturbed criminal neighbour (that stuff about ribs and salsa music and cleaning his motorcycle) and his own stated haunted feelings about the knowledge of what troubling horrors unfolded right next door to him encapsulate the emotional impact of the story more succinctly and powerfully than any number of expansive journalism-school adjectives could do.

And at the end of his interview below with Cooper, Ramsey holds up his paycheque and states unapologetically how lucky he is to have a job and income in a country where this sort of thing happens to his fellow citizens mere feet from his porch. It may not be as supremely meme-able as any of his more-famous catchphrases from his more emotional initial interview. But this momentary emphasis on America’s fundamental narrative of the tenuousness of economic survival, even in the face of the monstrous violations of the abduction, confinement, and rape case at hand, is a penetrating instance of direct commentary. The memory of Charles Ramsey’s role in this current-affairs crime story will fade, and the internet memes will recede into the rearview mirror. But if not only what he says but how he says it resonates with enough people, the media culture need not be poorer for his being a part of it.

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