As soon as I’d heard that Charles Ramsey had helped rescue three Cleveland women held captive for a decade–I immediately thought, “Hmm, wonder what irrelevant information the media will dig up to take him out of the heroic context.”
A black man had gone from Hero to Wife Beater in less than 48 hours.
You see, this is what we do in a culture that makes unearned innocence a trait of whiteness: we create racialized narratives of Heroism and Villainy and reconceptualize images of blackness until they fit neatly into the latter.
Born out of slavery and immortalized by Jim Crow, the racial narrative of the Black Buck is central to our societal illusions of black manhood. One that portrays him as inherently dangerous, violent, criminal, uncivilized, and sexually deviant over and over again. So strong a narrative it manifests itself in the structure of our socio-economic ills: disparate unemployment, racial profiling, police brutality, and the prison industrial complex.
It’s a narrative that even in black mens’ attempt to escape through reinvention–to play chameleons in the engagement of code switching and respectability– somehow always seems to find them.
It managed to find Trayvon Martin, the innocent 17 year-old who was shot and killed in Florida, armed with no more than Skittles and Iced Tea. Rather than join a collective effort to investigate the tragedy and convict George Zimmerman, the media was more interested in fitting Martin within the racial framework of the Thug, Juvenille, or recalcitrant youth. It used allegations of school suspensions, the use of marijuana , and even his Hoodie, to suggest that he was he was more imposing, more threatening, more familiar as the predator than the prey.
And like clockwork, culture began its demonization of Charles Ramsey in order to fit him into the narrative of villainy.
Its usual strategy would be to simply dismiss his heroism by framing him as the Exceptional Negro—the token black whose incongruent with negative stereotypes and is therefore deemed a racial anomaly. But he is working class, politically incorrect, too boisterous, and unassimilated to meet the white status quo, too “authentically black” to fit the framework effectively.
Its next tactic, then, was marginalization. Less than 24 hours after the story broke, he’d already been meme-ified; the video of his interview had gone viral, prompting autotune remixes and GIFS, the original story reduced to a running Internet joke. Identical to that of Antoine Dodoson, whose “hide yo kids, hide yo wife” slogan overshadowed the attempted rape of his sister, the memeification of Charles Ramsey trivialized the experiences of poor women and violence. It became more pressing to giggle at his “ignorance” and diction than to acknowledge the exploitation of female bodies from the neighborhoods we never care about.
Even amidst the mockery, Charles Ramsey’s choice to help the women threatened the racial narrative of villainy. More than that, he managed to perform poignant political commentary. For one, he outright rejected the politics of respectability. He refused to recast himself to satisfy standards of middle-class blackness and dared to bring his identity into a public space.
He also evoked public discourse about racial symbolism. His now infamous statement, (promptly deleted from the media), “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms” forced us to rethink historical images of black masculinity as it relates to white women. Here he was, a dark-skinned wild-haired black man not properly “tamed” by respectability and yet had not–as centuries of lynching tried to convinces us–raped or beaten but rescued a white female body. The juxtaposition of the Black Buck and White Innocence being seamlessly reinterpreted on our TV screens in real time.
Most important, perhaps, was his implicit message about white privilege. In his constant referencing to the “black man/white girl” dynamic, it spoke to his awareness of himself in the racialized narrative of black maleness. That he knew the limitations of his body to move through the world without fear of being the suspect, the criminal, the villain. That even within the context of his heroism he was simultaneously aware of how his identity might erase him from it.
And he was right.
Culture had done what it always does to black people in America: appropriate our failings to racial stereotypes while ignoring the larger circumstances of our oppression. It conveniently revives historical images of blackness even as we try to make space for nuance, and caricaturizes our lived experiences for white amusement.
Charles Ramsey got a chance to create his own racial narrative, but before we could embrace it, it had already been rewritten. Just like that.