The curious case of the black viral star


We knew it was coming. The formula is practically scientific: Disaster strikes; poor black person foils it (preferably in a roller set) or escapes, then gives a live interview jam-packed with ridiculous quotes that even Beyonc can’t resist; the Internet memes flood Facebook; and the fame countdown starts at minute 15.

So that makes Charles Ramsey, the hero in a horrific kidnapping drama, the new Sweet Brown, who herself was the new Antoine Dodson, who, according to TMZ, is newly religious. All three viral-video stars were made famous when a news van showed up to capture their colorful catchphrases, each impromptu line delivered with all the comedic timing of a seasoned pro.

But these three have more in common than their mutual “meme-ification.” Bravery, for one. Dodson saved his sister from sexual assault, fending off her potential attacker with his fists. Brown saved herself from an apartment fire, rushing out of her home with nothing but the clothes on her back. Ramsey rescued three young women who had been held captive for more than a decade, breaking down a door when he heard screams for help.

The fact that these Auto-Tuned heroes are black isn’t lost on anyone. The fact that broadcasters often choose the most stereotypical subject to underscore the “otherness” or “over there-ness” of tragic stories is nothing new. The image of the know-it-all “sassy black neighbor” in a housecoat and curlers is practically iconographic.

What’s happening now, with the seemingly prolific oversharing of problematic depictions of poor black folk, is less an issue with the images themselves than our own voracious consumption of them. We’re making ourselves sick, shaking our heads while clicking play.

“Perhaps it’s time for the world’s meme artists to stop assuming that any black dude getting interviewed on local news about a crime he helped to foil can be reduced to some catchphrase or in-joke,” writes Miles Klee at BlackBook. “It’s just baffling that we’re trying to find a way to laugh about what is, in itself, a harrowing turn of events.”

Aisha Harris at Slate agrees: “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.”

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.

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.

© 2013, The Root

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