NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
This week, the country celebrated the story of three women liberated 10 years after they were kidnapped and held all that time in a house in Cleveland. But there's another person in this story who made headlines: Charles Ramsey. He's the animated neighbor who helped rescue Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
CHARLES RAMSEY: I heard screaming. I'm eating my McDonald's. I come outside and I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of the house. So I go on the porch and - I go on the porch and she says, help me get out. I've been here a long time.
CONAN: Charles Ramsey's interview on a Cleveland television station has gone viral. The images and the words have been manipulated and Auto-Tuned like those of a few other African-Americans who made memorable appearances on the local news. On Browbeat, the culture blog on Slate, Aisha Harris posted a piece called "The Troubling Viral Trend of the 'Hilarious' Black Neighbor," and she joins us from a studio at Slate. Good to have you on the program today.
AISHA HARRIS: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And for those who don't follow these kinds of trends on Web, explain what happened to that original interview.
HARRIS: Well, that original interview, was within a few hours, turned into a meme. It became Auto-Tuned. There were several moments like the ones we just heard, I'm eating my McDonald's, kind of plucked out and remixed and made funny and entertaining. And I think it's a little troubling just because it does - the meme-ification takes away from what he did and the fact that he did rescue - or helped rescue three women.
CONAN: And is this intended as mockery?
HARRIS: It's hard to say. I do think that there is a kind of underlying, unconscious, perhaps, desire or need for a lot of people whether they're black or white to see black people perform, even if it's in a newsworthy sense. He rescued and some would consider him a hero. And, yeah, I do think some people in the comments are mocking him, and I think other people do see this just as a - he's just a genuinely good storyteller. I don't think anyone can deny that. But I do think that this sort of focus by people to instantly turn him into this entertaining figure takes away from what he did and the women who were also kidnapped.
CONAN: And all the more troubling you say in your piece because this has happened before.
HARRIS: Yes. I think that this wouldn't be as troubling if we didn't also have Antoine Dodson, who was known for the hide your kids, hide your wife meme. He was a similar figure in that he is presumably lower class, hair is a little unkempt, talks very kind of flamboyantly, which I feel like a lot of America is not used to. Personally, I have lots of family members who sound a lot like Charles Ramsey and can - that's the way they talk, the nature way. But I think a lot of America isn't used to that. And when they see that, it's funny to them in a way that's a little off-putting.
And Antoine Dodson is another example who - he was also a hero himself. He rescued his sister from someone who was trying to intrude into their house. So there's that and there's also Sweet Brown, who was interviewed after there was a fire in her apartment and she was also very flamboyant, lower-class black. And another woman, Michelle Clark, in a - who was known for her kabooya(ph), this phrase and also being very flamboyant.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Becky(ph) in Cleveland. I'm grateful not only for Charles Ramsey's heroism, but for his being a wonderful face representative for Cleveland. People could be thinking of the monster who perpetrated these crimes when they hear Cleveland and think this is a scary place. Instead colorful language and ordinary guy charm is making everybody think of him, an upstanding citizen who helped these women in their escape.
HARRIS: Yes, I would agree with that to some extent. I do think the news and the media, itself, has been pretty good about promoting him as a hero, granted recently, as we all know, there is a little bit of a back story about his prior life. He was apparently accused, or he was convicted, I believe, of domestic violence, which kind of may put a new spin on things. I think still, in this case, he did help rescue three women, so, yeah.
CONAN: Yeah, he - one of the things he said was he heard the sounds and thought it sounded like a domestic violence case. And apparently, he knew.
CONAN: And as you look at the coverage - not the coverage, but the - what's going out on the Web on this story, why do people do it, do you think? Just to be amused by it, or to see black people perform?
HARRIS: I do think that's part of it. I think, I mean, there's the part at the end where he talks about - he brings up race, which is very surprising. That's what, kind of, separates him from the Sweet Browns and Antoine Dodsons, because I think when you're watching those, you don't really think about it. You might feel like there's something, kind of, going on, these black, quote, unquote, "characters" performing. But with - in the case of Ramsey, he brings it to the forefront and brings up race, and he said, you know, I knew something was wrong when a little white girl is running into my arms, and...
CONAN: Not into his arms but into a black man's arms.
HARRIS: Into a black man's arms, yes, correct.
CONAN: Yeah. And let's hear the tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)
RAMSEY: 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.
JOSH BOOSE: Charles, Charles, thank you very much.
RAMSEY: Dead giveaway.
BOOSE: Thank you very much for your time and...
RAMSEY: Either she's homeless or she got problems. That's the only reason why she ran to a black man.
CONAN: Joining us now is Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart. He wrote an op-ed for that paper titled "We could stand to be more like Charles Ramsey." He's with us from a studio at the newspaper. And nice to have you back on the program.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And you were particularly interested in that quote.
CAPEHART: I was. When I heard that quote, as I wrote today, I burst out laughing. It was startling to hear, and I also thought, wow, I can't believe he had the nerve to say it. And I thought this because in that one comment, as Aisha alluded to, he said a lot about race in America. You know, there was no need for an explanation because we all know what he's talking about. We all knew what he meant. And given the nefarious stereotypes of black men in America, you know, we knew that there was some kernel of truth to it.
And if you don't think that that's case, and then I'm glad you played the clip, you could hear the people with their knowing laughter in the background after he said what he said. It was comical that folks knew what he was getting at.
CONAN: And interesting the - I don't know if the reporter was being yelled at by a producer in his ears to wrap it up. But the reporter seemed to want to get out of there pretty quickly.
CAPEHART: Yes, because, you know, race is a touchy subject. And on live television, I think that reporter probably decided - because they'd already been on the air. This interview was going on for a while, and I think he probably thought, you know what, let's just cut it here before it gets any more dicey. But it was a startling comment, a terrific comment, a very telling comment from Mr. Ramsey.
CONAN: Aisha Harris, I wanted to ask you about it. A brave thing to say because it's one of those things everybody knows but doesn't say out loud?
HARRIS: Right. It was a very astute observation. It kind of felt like, to me, Kanye West's version of, like, I - but George Bush doesn't care about black people and that whole, like, oh, we got to cut now. This can't happen on live television, except it was much more perceptive than West's statement. And he, kind of, said it in a way, it's like, yeah, yeah, like, it was kind of funny to him, but a bitter irony. When I was watching it, I was very shocked. I felt the same way as Jonathan did. And it just - it also felt like a Dave Chappelle skit or something, except real life. It felt - this was real.
It's funny. You laugh about it at first, then you're like, well, he has a point. There's this history of fear of the black male and the black male with a white woman or white girl, and I think that does play into it. And he's much smarter than I think, than the means that kind of brush over that or completely ignore it, give him.
CONAN: Jonathan Capehart, what do you think is behind those video manipulations, the samplings and the autotunes of Mr. Ramsey?
CAPEHART: Well, you know, I think what Aisha's been talking about is very good observation. I mean, we now have four examples of hilarious black people in television, news interviews performing, being characters, I think, you know, being themselves. Like Aisha, I have relatives who speak just like Mr. Ramsey, or Antoine Dodson or Sweet Brown. But I think for us, while it might seem commonplace, daresay normal, I think for a majority of folks who are seeing these folks for the first time, it can be a little jarring.
Look, personally speaking, the first time I saw Antoine Dodson, I laughed. The first time I saw Sweet Brown, I laughed. When I watched the Charles Ramsey interview, I laughed and then I gasped. But with each one, though, after the laughter stops and you listen to exactly what they're saying, particularly Antoine Dodson and Charles Ramsey, you focus in on who are these people and what is their character.
As Aisha pointed out, Antoine Dodson was saving his sister from being raped by an intruder. Charles Ramsey, you know, didn't even think about his own safety when he heard someone screaming for help and thought said out loud, I thought it was a domestic violence situation. Most people would turn away. Most people would say this is none of my business. I shouldn't get involved, and yet both of these people got involved.
And, you know, clearly, coming from tough circumstances, certainly tough circumstances that I'm living in right now, but who are people who are trying to live their lives and live their lives the best way they can in difficult circumstances and still being able to do so with their heads held high and being very proud of themselves and who they are.
CONAN: Jonathan Capehart is an opinion writer for The Washington Post. Also with us, Aisha Harris, an assistant for Brow Beat, that's Slate's culture blog. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And in a sense, Aisha Harris, are - is what's going an example of mainstream's culture in a minstrel show and taking these comments as some - almost as alien.
HARRIS: Yes. I think that is a big part of it. I think it's important to note that I do think, in some ways, that class does play a big part in this. All of them are lower class, undereducated, perhaps. And that's what we get, that's what see here, that's what take in. And there are plenty of examples of people of all ethnicities acting as eyewitnesses, saying crazy things. It doesn't matter who, like - there was recently a homeless hitchhiker or someone. He was white and he had a mean of smash, smash, smash. He apparently saves a woman from a racist attacker.
And so that that was pretty big, and that was got around a lot just like Antoine Dodson. But he's the only example I can think that has the same kind of omnipresence in all of culture as the black people that we've seen over the last few years. I mean, Sweet Brown is in a commercial. Antoine Dodson also capitalized and appeared in several other videos that went viral; does, like, cameos. So I think the fact that - it's not just a fact that the news might pick out these certain black people, I think, that there are many examples of everyone of all races.
But I also think that the ones that are getting the most popular and the most play are the ones that are black. And I do think that's an inherent need to see - and unconscious, perhaps - need to see black people perform.
CONAN: There is, however, all us, we reporters do this. I used to - when I worked the streets and there is the - getting reaction from public in the streets, vox pop, or man of the streets interviews. And I developed a very easy formula for finding the most animated people. Look for the people in the funny hats. And we all do that.
CAPEHART: Yeah. Yeah. Because in the business that we're in, we're looking for the most vibrant, colorful, interesting comments. And so you try to figure out stuff out. OK, who's going to be that person to give that to me?
CONAN: Here's an email from Brody in Boise: Do you think the success and fame brought to people you mentioned, and Joe the Plumber, have made people try to perform during these interviews.
CAPEHART: Well, I certainly think so. I mean, certainly, since Antoine Dodson and the success he has had with that - remember, he was living in the projects and - I believe it was in Alabama, and he - because of the success of the autotunes, video and everything else, he was able to move his family out of the project. So I think - certainly, there might be some folks who are motivated to try to do the same thing.
CONAN: And this from Claudia: Mr. Ramsey's statement, I knew something was wrong when the little, pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms was intended to be funny. It was also on the mark about conditions in America. The man should receive a medal for his heroism and a lucrative contract for stand-up comedy. So...
HARRIS: I mean, I don't know if I'd go that far.
HARRIS: But he definitely - clearly has a gift for storytelling and he happened to be the one who rescued them and sound like they sought him out.
CONAN: He had a direct role of the story. Yes.
HARRIS: Right, right. Although there was, as we've also learned, another person who apparently had a role in this story. But I think because he's not as flamboyant and he speaks minimal English, he hasn't gotten nearly as much coverage as Ramsey. But yeah, I mean, I think his point about race was supposed to be funny. But in the - again, the Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor kind of way, like, yeah, you're laughing at this. But also you have to step back and also pause and be like, but that's kind of true.
CONAN: More funny peculiar than funny ha-ha - or maybe a little bit of both.
CONAN: And this from Lemur: Anyone who makes fun of the hero ,Charles Ramsey, are the same kind of people who'd make fun of different cultures or laugh at racial jokes. The media has not done enough to emphasize what a brave, wonderful, selfless act that was to the extent he didn't think of any danger he may have been in himself. God bless Charles Ramsey, a real American hero. And, Jonathan Capehart, I think that was the point of your piece today.
CAPEHART: Yeah, exactly. I - when I saw the interview and started writing, I thought, well, wait a minute. There's something - there is something bigger here, especially when he said to Anderson Cooper no, no, no, bro. I'm a Christian and American. I'm just like you. We bleed the same blood, put on our pants the same way. When he was told by Anderson Cooper that there was a reward money available, he said, no, no, no, no. Give that to them. Give that to victims.
CONAN: Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post, Aisha Harris of Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog. Thanks to you both.
CAPEHART: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thanks for - thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with a chat with Pulitzer Prize winning physicist Saul Perlmutter. Join us back here on Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.