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Why Charles Ramsey’s interview is great (and it’s okay* to think so)

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Everybody loved the Charles Ramsey interviews on freeing Amanda Berry, one of three young women abducted in Cleveland a decade ago and apparently held captive all this time. Then of course, people hated it. Or some did, anyway, raising questions about the meme of the “hilarious black neighbor.” Until details about the story had time to emerge—what went on in that house, and how such secrets went undetected for so long—all the attention was on Ramsey, and his unfiltered recounting of the excitement on Seymour Street. You’ve seen the video and heard the audio, but here it is in text form:

“Yeah, hey bro,” Ramsey told the dispatcher. “I’m at 2207 Seymour. West 25th. Check this out—I just came from McDonald’s, right? So I’m on my porch eating my little food, right? This broad is trying to break out the fucking house next door to me, so there’s a bunch of people on the street right now and shit. So we’re like, ‘What’s wrong? What’s the problem?’ She’s like, ‘This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter…’ She say her name is Linda Berry or some shit. I don’t know who the fuck that is, I just moved over here, bro.”

“Sir, sir,” said the male dispatcher. “…You have to calm down and slow down. Is she still in the street?”

“Seymour Avenue,” Ramsey said.

“Is she still in the street or where did she go?”

“Yeah I’m looking at her right now. She’s calling y’all! She’s on the other phone.”

They went on for a bit, with Ramsey getting frustrated and the dramatic tension (hello, narrative) rising. A short while later the TV news crews arrived, and Ramsey’s story got longer and more detailed, with discrepancies:

I went to McDonald’s and I’m at home and I hear this, ‘Help, let me out!’ This girl screaming. Now we don’t have that on our street because everybody on this street knows each other, so when you hear something like that you come running to see what’s going on. I thought it was a kid got attacked by a pit bull. And I looked at that girl and I said, ‘You look familiar!’ And I’m prying the door open and she’s trying to get out, and she climbed through the bottom of it and soon as she got out she said, ‘My name is Amanda Berry, call the police.’

You heard screaming? the reporter asked.

I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s. I come outside and I see this girl going nuts, trying to get out of her house, so I go on the porch and she says, ‘Help me get out, I’ve been in here a long time,’ so I figured it was a domestic violence dispute so I opened the door and we can’t get in that way because…a body can’t fit through, only your hand. So we kicked the bottom and she comes out with a little girl and she says, ‘Call 911. My name is Amanda Berry.’ When she told me, it didn’t register until I got to calling 911… I thought this girl was dead, you know what I mean? And she got on the phone and she said, ‘Yes, this is me…’

And when did you see Gina?

About five minutes after the police got here. See, that girl Amanda told the police, ‘I ain’t just the only one, it’s some more girls up in that house.’ So they went up there 30, 40 deep, and when they came out it was just astonishing because I thought they were gonna come up with nothing.

How long you lived here?

I been here a year! I barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot, and listen to salsa music.

And you had no indication?

Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or that anybody else was in there against their will. Because how he is, he just comes out to his back yard, plays with the dogs, tinkering with his cars and motorcycles, goes back in the house. He’s somebody that you look at and look away because he’s not doing nothing but the average stuff. There’s nothing exciting about him. Well, until today.

What was the reaction on the girls’ faces? I can’t imagine…

Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Either she’s homeless or she got problems. That’s the only reason she’s running to a black man.

[The interview over, Ramsey flashed the thumbs-up.]

Why this is great and people love it: First, true originals mesmerize. Unfiltered, unmanaged, Ramsey was authentically who he is. Second, he told a story. His account of the escape is straight up narrative. The elements are there: a compelling character with an original voice (“Yeah, hey, bro…check this out;” “so they went up there 30, 40 deep;” “We eat ribs and whatnot”); there’s a clear structure (chronological), dialogue (which is key), and the aforementioned dramatic tension; it’s got what Tom Wolfe calls status details—food from McDonald’s, assumptions about a pit bull attack and a domestic violence dispute. And then the underdog hero utters a Hemingway’s-iceberg line of dialogue:

“Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”

So the story becomes transcendent.

If you’re writing the long-ball narrative you wouldn’t want to omit what happened next, which was that Ramsey, inevitably, went viral. Why? Did the public love him for his storytelling skills? His authenticity? His gutsy instincts? Yep. And was that okay? Absolutely. There was nothing, on Day 1, not to love. This was “a wonderfully vibrant interview with a man who helped kick down a door and rescue three women and a child,” said Neely Tucker, a veteran Washington Post reporter and author of Love in the Driest Season, when we informally polled a few journalists on the topic. “It was precise, exciting, emotional, visually telling, and told with great pacing and narrative detail. All in two minutes, live, on camera. Anybody who’s bothered that the narrator is black and probably not rich is saying more about themselves than him.”

*Things got tricky when the inevitable autotune opportunists and meme-weavers bundled Ramsey with the viral videos of other crime-scene witnesses, all of whom happened to be black. The personal you-go-dude! feelings for Ramsey, conflated with images of expressive stylists like Antoine Dodson, morphed into something else. Not ugly, exactly, but ugly adjacent, if you took the view that the meme-drivers were laughing at, not with. Ramsey moved “from bystander and guy on the scene into ‘Internet object of affection,’” as Justin Ellis, an assistant editor of Nieman Journalism Lab, one of Storyboard’s sister publications, puts it. “I don’t know if that’s just the Internet chugging along or if there’s something else to blame. People want to celebrate him, which is great, but it’s hard to ignore the familiar trappings/scenario of ‘black person achieves Internet fame through local TV,’ which can feel exploitive at times and condescending or even casually racist at others.”

A narrative that already contained those trace elements of race/class (“pretty white girl;” “black man’s arms”) now had an overlay of social media influence, triggering confusion (was it not okay to like this guy’s interview?) and raising coverage questions: How will—or should—this aspect of the story be presented in the long view, or even in the short one? We asked other colleagues and here’s what they said:

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Greg Moore

I have not watched a lot of the Internet stuff having fun with Charles Ramsey’s manner and I don’t plan to. I am from Cleveland and I know lots of people like Ramsey. On the street, he is likely being lauded for “keeping it real.” And part of the fascination with him is his originality and lack of self-consciousness. That’s partly why he could do what he did in saving those three women. He was on ABC’s Good Morning America this morning talking about the case, grappling for the right word here and there and sometimes clearly not understanding the question. But there was no mistaking his meaning and his grit when he did. Lamenting that he had shared ribs with the alleged perpetrator and even tried to salsa dance to some of his music, he ruefully noted something like this: If I had known what was going on in that house, don’t you think we’d be having a different interview right now? With Ramsey, you darn tootin’. Sometime people have to laugh to keep from crying. That’s a little bit of what is going on. This stuff is so bad and we are so relieved. But we all need to be listening to what this brave man is saying and not how he says it. I don’t think the reaction is so much racist as it reflects the lack of real familiarity with the strata of America. There are lots of people who talk like Ramsey and are damn funny, too. And there are many I grew up with who don’t play; who do the right thing and are fearless. Simple applause for Ramsey should be enough. He is a genuine hero, quirks and all. McDonald’s needs to put him in a commercial and one of those public-minded dental clinics should give him some new choppers for free. That’s the best way to show gratitude for such courage and community mindedness. And it is okay to chuckle at the unvarnished way he puts things? (Because it is really nervous laughter about how little we know about real people living real lives in communities across America). If we really understood his world, we’d know he is just keeping it real. And we are damn lucky he is. — Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post, and Pulitzer Prize board member

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Callie Crossley

First, of course, so glad he did what he did. Having said that, I wondered why a lot of the response to him has been all about the “funny” delivery. Have to say I’ve seen it before in portrayals of black men who happen into the middle of a breaking story—Antoine Dodson a prime example. For a while he was all the rage in pop culture, even garnering a record contract. But in his case and in Charles’ the serious substance of what they were saying got subsumed by their mannerisms and affect. I’m fascinated—not in a good way—by the fact that Charles’ commentary about race in Cleveland has stopped being reported as part of the story. “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty ran into a black man’s arms”—that’s pretty deep, and I think should have inspired journalists to ask him to explain what he meant. I’ve only heard one report focusing on this piece of the story, and I can’t remember if it was a TV or radio story. The piece picked up on his statement and went on to talk about the deep racial divide in Cleveland. But, that is the ONLY report I’ve seen dealing with it. As I see it, this is another example of journalists who are reluctant to pursue a legitimate racial angle to a story, even if it is a part of the main character’s story. And of course there is a class angle here. Reporters are also not so comfortable dealing with that issue. By the way, in the black blogosphere, a lot of folks are referencing In Living Color‘s satirical sketch: Reporters arrive on the scene of a breaking story and there are two witnesses, one a black professional in a suit and tie and another a black woman in what we used to call a housecoat, with curlers in her hair, and not in great command of the King’s English. Of course all of the reporters rushed past the guy and went to her for a “colorful” recitation of the events that had transpired. This is not exactly the same scenario in Charles Ramsey’s case—he was the only witness—but you get my drift. — Callie Crossley, host of the WGBH Radio show “Under the Radar.” Friday night at 7:30, Crossley will lead a Basic Black discussion called “What Can We Learn from Charles Ramsey?” It airs on WGBH-TV, Channel 2 in the Boston area.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland narrative unfolded. When Anderson Cooper spoke to Ramsey about all this, Ramsey said, “It’s about cojones. It’s about cojones, on this planet.” Cooper then asked whether he hoped to receive the FBI reward for helping free the women. “I tell you what you do,” Ramsey said instantly. “Give it to them.”




2 comments

  1. Craig Donahue
    posted May 11, 2013 at 8:47 pm | permalink

    I understand your point but he is who he is. Which is authentic and with a gift of gab. Why does he have to militant and the poster man of the lack of race relations in Cleveland and the U.S as a whole. Good or bad but he can appeal to the urban dwellers where you can’t to take action in a society where it’s the norm to not get involved. I only hope he gets rid of his so called agent,greedy hoodrat friend who’s going to inpeed his chances of profiting fiancially. I myself am 52 years of age and have personally met some Black heavyweights like Angela Davis while eating at Dock of the Bay in Berkely ca. Also I sold shoes several times to Maya Angelo who at times would wait with her friend Ruth Love ex-chicago unified superintendent until I returned from lunch. Huey Newton among others. Point is don’t knock this man for keeping it real!

  2. Miguel Rivero
    posted May 13, 2013 at 5:28 am | permalink

    I think the words people are looking for when explaining Mr. Ramsey is “off the cuff.” As a journalist, how many times have you interviewed someone and the responses seem canned? You interview a politician and its like they are being fed the answers, so they don’t say anything they have to commit to. We might have a free press, but face it, given enough prep time, the press is being manipulated by corporations, politicians, celebrities, and so on. This man was brutally honest. He was original. He was unprepared. He was emotional. He was a human being grappling with an abhorrent reality next door to where he lives.

    It’s more than ok to love him. He represents something this country desperately needs, several things actually. Honesty, sincerity, self esteem, the ability to discuss what it’s like to be him, among others.

    Is it okay to love him, despite his past transgressions? Is it ok to hail him as the man of the hour? Of course it is. It’s refreshing to hear a man tell it like it is in his world, not some canned interview.

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