Cleveland's Charles Ramsey offers lessons on truth, race, neighbors

New York Times News ServiceMay 9, 2013 

APTOPIX Missing Women Found

Neighbor Charles Ramsey speaks to media near the home on the 2200 block of Seymour Avenue, where three missing women were rescued in Cleveland.

SCOTT SHAW — AP/Cleveland Plain Dealer

That didn’t 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 you’d 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 McDonald’s, calling everybody ”bro”? Was this blatant condescension, as some have suggested, the impulse to laugh at someone who seems inarticulate or different?

I think that’s not giving Ramsey – or much of the public – enough credit. Sure, there have been racist reactions, and it’s impossible to get inside everybody’s mind. But for most people, Charles Ramsey is fascinating precisely because he was articulate, in a way most people aren’t, 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 don’t know our neighbors or willfully misunderstand them.

“I knew somethin’ was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” he said, as the reporter visibly cringed. ”Somethin’ is wrong here. She’s got problems. That’s the only reason she’s 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 doesn’t make Ramsey a symbol of our country’s 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 public’s overwhelming goodwill, and with a cogency you don’t always get in TV interviews with crime witnesses and victims.

On WEWS, and later in an interview with CNN’s 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 Cooper’s 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. McDonald’s has hinted that it’s 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.

We’ve 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 don’t matter anymore. Common humanity takes over.

“Bro, I’m a Christian, an American, I’m just like you,” Ramsey told Anderson Cooper. ”We bleed the same blood, put our pants on the same way.”

He’s right. He’s our neighbor. And everyone wants to know him now.

New York Times News Service

Joanna Weiss is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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