That didnt take long. Within hours of rescuing three women held captive in Cleveland for a decade, Charles Ramsey friendly neighbor, Big Mac eater, door kicker-inner was an Internet star, a cultural symbol, inspiring all of the hand-wringing and navel-gazing youd expect.
First came the sharing: of his frantic call to 911, his interview with Cleveland station WEWS, which was later, inevitably, Auto-Tuned.
Then came the backlash: Why was he such a phenomenon? Was it because he fit into race and class stereotypes eating at McDonalds, calling everybody bro? Was this blatant condescension, as some have suggested, the impulse to laugh at someone who seems inarticulate or different?
I think thats not giving Ramsey or much of the public enough credit. Sure, there have been racist reactions, and its impossible to get inside everybodys mind. But for most people, Charles Ramsey is fascinating precisely because he was articulate, in a way most people arent, about the scope of the situation he had just experienced.
In that WEWS clip, he channeled the shock of realizing how little we know our neighbors. Something horrifying and sick had happened right next door, he marveled, and I barbecued with this dude.
And then, he spoke a truth about race in America, about the deeper ways that we dont know our neighbors or willfully misunderstand them.
I knew somethin was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black mans arms, he said, as the reporter visibly cringed. Somethin is wrong here. Shes got problems. Thats the only reason shes running to a black man!
That statement was packed with uncomfortable truths about the assumptions people make, the self-enforced segregation of everyday life, the realities of American cities. And speaking out doesnt make Ramsey a symbol of our countrys racial and cultural divide. It makes him a bridge. Because to bridge a divide, we have to acknowledge it.
It helps to speak the way Ramsey did: with self-knowledge and good humor, after earning the publics overwhelming goodwill, and with a cogency you dont always get in TV interviews with crime witnesses and victims.
On WEWS, and later in an interview with CNNs Anderson Cooper, Ramsey told his story with the kind of color and detail reporters dream about. He recounted how he kicked in a door with a half-eaten Big Mac in his hand, recalled in detail what victim Amanda Berry looked like and wore, talked about how he suddenly realized who the little girl standing beside Berry might be.
And he tacitly noted some of the assumptions the public might make about him. When told of a reward for finding the missing women, Ramsey pulled out a paycheck, waved it in Coopers face, and said, Take that reward and give it to that little girl.
For Ramsey, rewards might still come. In Cleveland, his face is already on T-shirts. McDonalds has hinted that its reaching out to him.
His path to fame is based not just on some telegenic moments, but on a mountain of truths. His statements resonate especially in Boston, where the Tsarnaev brothers have just shown how little we sometimes know our neighbors.
Weve also grappled with what it means to be an accidental hero, the way a single brave or helpful act can boost an entire community. Ramsey proved that, in moments of crisis, race and class divisions often dont matter anymore. Common humanity takes over.
Bro, Im a Christian, an American, Im just like you, Ramsey told Anderson Cooper. We bleed the same blood, put our pants on the same way.
Hes right. Hes our neighbor. And everyone wants to know him now.
New York Times News Service
Joanna Weiss is a columnist for the Boston Globe.