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.

I get both sentiments. How many more Sweet Browns can we swallow before getting a cavity? But is the issue with the factory? The anonymous Internet machine churning out one screwed and chopped video after another? Or does the product itself have any liability here? The flash impulse to perform, as opposed to the exploitation of the performer, seems like the most interesting issue.

The meme treatment that each of our unlikely interviewees received only highlighted what was already there: a performance. The assumption that anyone — poor, black, rich or white — doesn’t immediately assume a persona when thrust in front of a camera is a naive one. It implies that these adults lacked self-awareness necessary to censor themselves on national television. Anyone who’s walked past a 99-cent store knows “Lord Jesus, it’s a fire!” is slogan-worthy. Sweet Brown, whose real name is Kimberly Wilkins, even showed up with a stage name all ready to go.

Since his impromptu public service announcement — “Hide ya kids, hide ya wife” — Dodson has sold T-shirts and Halloween costumes and filmed a reality show. Most recently he’s eschewed homosexuality to become a “True Chosen Hebrew Israelite descendant of Judah.” That announcement was covered by TMZ, VH1 and the Daily Mail (not to mention The Root).

Ramsey undoubtedly knows the trajectory of the viral star. I’m sure that Ramsey, in between eating ribs and listening to salsa music with alleged kidnapper Ariel Castro, had time to click on a YouTube video or two. Whether he’d seen Sweet Brown’s dental commercial or the one for Dodson’s “Sex Offender Tracker” smartphone app, Ramsey, like the rest of us, probably knows a thing or two about the rewards (and price) of fame. None of that undercuts his heroism — nor should it — but it could explain the ensuing high jinks.

In a truly meta moment, Ramsey ended a recent interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper with a pointed wink. It could easily have been meant for the rest of us.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.