The Curious Case of the Black Viral Star

It's valid to worry about the exploitation of Charles Ramsey and others. But they're far from victims.

(The Root) — We knew it was coming. The formula is practically scientific: Disaster strikes; poor black person foils it (preferably in a roller set) or escapes, then gives a live interview jam-packed with ridiculous quotes that even Beyoncé can’t resist; the Internet memes flood Facebook; and the fame countdown starts at minute 15.

So that makes Charles Ramsey, the hero in a horrific kidnapping drama, the new Sweet Brown, who herself was the new Antoine Dodson, who, according to TMZ, is newly religious. All three viral-video stars were made famous when a news van showed up to capture their colorful catchphrases, each impromptu line delivered with all the comedic timing of a seasoned pro.

But these three have more in common than their mutual “meme-ification.” Bravery, for one. Dodson saved his sister from sexual assault, fending off her potential attacker with his fists. Brown saved herself from an apartment fire, rushing out of her home with nothing but the clothes on her back. Ramsey rescued three young women who had been held captive for more than a decade, breaking down a door when he heard screams for help.

The fact that these Auto-Tuned heroes are black isn’t lost on anyone. The fact that broadcasters often choose the most stereotypical subject to underscore the “otherness” or “over there-ness” of tragic stories is nothing new. The image of the know-it-all “sassy black neighbor” in a housecoat and curlers is practically iconographic.

What’s happening now, with the seemingly prolific oversharing of problematic depictions of poor black folk, is less an issue with the images themselves than our own voracious consumption of them. We’re making ourselves sick, shaking our heads while clicking play.

“Perhaps it’s time for the world’s meme artists to stop assuming that any black dude getting interviewed on local news about a crime he helped to foil can be reduced to some catchphrase or in-joke,” writes Miles Klee at BlackBook. “It’s just baffling that we’re trying to find a way to laugh about what is, in itself, a harrowing turn of events.”

Aisha Harris at Slate agrees: “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.”