The troubling viral trend of the “hilarious” Black poor person
May 7, 2013
Charles Ramsey, the man who helped rescue three Cleveland women presumed dead after going missing a decade ago, has become an instant Internet meme. It’s hardly surprising—the interviews he gave yesterday provide plenty of fodder for a viral video, including memorable soundbites (“I was eatin’ my McDonald’s”) and lots of enthusiastic gestures. But as Miles Klee and Connor Simpson have noted, Ramsey’s heroism is quickly being overshadowed by the public’s desire to laugh at and autotune his story, and that’s a shame. Ramsey has become the latest in a fairly recent trend of “hilarious” black neighbors, unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a “colorful” style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class.
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.”
Granted, the buzzworthy tactic of reporters interviewing the most loquacious witnesses to a crime or other event is nothing new, and YouTube has countless examples of people of all ethnicities saying ridiculous things. One woman, for instance, saw fit to casually mention her breasts while discussing a local accident, while another man described a car crash with theatrical flair. Earlier this year, a “hatchet-wielding hitchhiker” named Kai matched Dodson’s fame with his astonishing account of rescuing a woman from a racist attacker. But none of those people have been subjected to quite the same level of derisive memeification as Brown, Clark, and now, perhaps, Ramsey—the inescapable echoes of “Hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wife!” and “Kabooyaw,” the tens of millions of YouTube hits and cameos in other viral videos, even commercials.
It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform. Even before the genuinely heroic Ramsey came along, some viewers had expressed concern that the laughter directed at people like Sweet Brown plays into the most basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the “ghetto,” socially out of step with the rest of educated America. Black or white, seeing Clark and Dodson merely as funny instances of random poor people talking nonsense is disrespectful at best. And shushing away the question of race seems like wishful thinking.
Ramsey is particularly striking in this regard, since, for a moment at least, he put the issue of race front and center himself. Describing the rescue of Amanda Berry and her fellow captives, he says, “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway!”
The candid statement seems to catch the reporter off guard; he ends the interview shortly afterward. And it’s notable that among the many memorable things Ramsey said on camera, this one has gotten less meme-attention than most. Those who are simply having fun with the footage of Ramsey might pause for a second to actually listen to the man. He clearly knows a thing or two about the way racism prevents us from seeing each other as people.
Now that you know this is a thing, please stop sharing these memes. Poor Black people speaking candidly about various serious incidents isn’t a hilarious joke.
Technically it is still a joke, it’s just not a very nice joke.
Nerdfighter Benedict? Or just failed Vulcan?
As far as I can tell, there are eight possibilities here. (I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about this.)
1. Benedict Cumberbatch is a hardcore nerdfighter and when Martin Freeman threw up a gang sign, Cumberbatch was like, “I have one of those.”
2. Cumberbatch, who obviously has a relationship with Star Trek, just naturally changed the Vulcan sign (pulling in the thumbs, turning the palms inward, crossing the arms) in precisely the same way that I happened to change the Vulcan sign when I first made the nerdfighter sign in the halcyon days of 2007.
3. One of the interns on set who has gained the trust of Benedict Cumberbatch was like, “If you do your hands like this, the Internet will get really excited.” And so he did.
4. BBC, in their infinite wisdom, staged the entire photo and Cumberbatch was taught the nerdfighter sign (I MEAN LOOK AT THE PERFECTION OF HIS NERDFIGHTER SIGN! He seems so comfortable and confident in it, almost as if it is muscle memory, almost as if he has flashed it to his laptop screen on hundreds of occasions in the past, but I digress) and this photograph was staged to get people psyched for Sherlock, although what tiny segment of nerdfighteria is not already psyched for Sherlock? Also, if this is the case, who is Martin Freeman trying to advertise to? Residents of the West Side?
5. Benedict Cumberbatch has a relative or a friend who is a nerdfighter and so he is passingly familiar with nerdfighteria and liked what he has seen and wanted to make us all very happy.
6. The nerdfighter sign also happens to be the hand sign of some obscure English gang with which I am unfamiliar called like The East London Wanderers or The Slightly Intimidating Liverpudlians or whatever.
7. Nerdfighteria actually figures in the plot of the new season of Sherlock. Perhaps a nerdfighter has been (wrongly no doubt!) accused of a murder.
8. Benedict Cumberbatch was playing some kind of British version of Rock Paper Scissors against two invisible opponents, and he went double scissors (as any smart person would).