America watched in fascination when the news broke that three women, all missing and presumed dead for the better part of a decade, had been found and rescued in Cleveland. Those of us not from the Cleveland area knew little, if anything, about the cases of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight. I admit to my own ignorance—so much so that when I first read about the kidnappings this week, I was convinced that the dates were some kind of editorial error. When I realized that the dates in which the three victims were kidnapped were not a mistake, I became sick to my stomach thinking about what their lives must have been like for all those years. Unfortunately, the media, and much of the American public, chose to turn away from the brutality of crimes, and the seemingly growing disregard we as a nation have for the safety of women and children, and instead focused on the man credited with rescuing the victims, Charles Ramsey.
I’ll admit that I too was fascinated with Ramsey, the Cleveland dishwasher, whose straightened hair reminded me of the smell of hot combs, and whose missing teeth made me knock on wood that my grill was still in decent shape. Ramsey became an overnight sensation this week, after a series of interviews where he came across about as real as real can get. If Ramsey had an official theme song playing along with his interviews, it would have been The Dramatics’ “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get.”
Already charges have been leveled at Ramsey, some regarding his own past history of domestic violence, as well as the fact that he did not act alone in rescuing Berry, DeJesus, and Knight. I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion on the relevance of these charges, other than to say that in the immediate moments surrounding the rescue, when cameras were flocking around Ramsey, his past criminal record had no bearing whatsoever. Likewise, much of the public’s reaction to Ramsey was not in any way, shape, or form determined by what he may or may not have done years ago, or who may or may not have helped him in rescuing three women and a child from years of torture. No, much of the public reaction to Ramsey was the self-important ridicule of those looking down their noses at what they considered a ghetto Negro.
In 1943, writer Langston Hughes created the character Jesse B. Semple, also known as Jesse B. Simple, or, more simply, Simple. As the name implied, Simple was a simple character, a resident of Harlem whose uncomplicated observations of the everyday world made him something of a ghetto philosopher. In the foreword to Tales of Simple, Hughes writes, “I cannot truthfully state, as some novelists do at the beginnings of their books, that these stories are about “nobody living or dead.” The facts are that these tales are about a great many people—although they are stories about no specific persons as such. But it is impossible to live in Harlem and not know at least a hundred Simples.”
I couldn’t help but think of Hughes and Simple—one of my favorite writers and one of my favorite literary characters—as I watched Charles Ramsey being interviewed in Cleveland. The fact of the matter is that just as you can’t live in Harlem and not know at least a hundred simples, you can’t live in any working class or low-income black neighborhood and not know at least a hundred Charles Ramseys. Ramsey is Simple—and I mean that in the best way possible. I grew up around men like Simple and Ramsey, I still see them on a regular basis, and when they make me laugh, as Ramsey did during his interviews, I laughed with him, not at him. And that’s the important distinction in how people have been reacting to Ramsey. Some are laughing at him, as if he himself were a joke, which reveals their own racism, classism, and overall asshole-ism.
Hughes wrote about his original inspiration for Simple—a man he knew that worked at a factory making cranks, but didn’t know what the cranks cranked because “you know white folks don’t tell colored folks what cranks crank.” Hughes went on to write how this character inspired the creation of Simple and his musings. Over the years, Simple would talk to Hughes, “Usually over a glass of beer, he tells me his tales, mostly in high humor, but sometimes with a pain in his soul as sharp as the occasional hurt of that bunion on his right foot. Sometimes, as the old blues say, Simple might be “laughing to keep from crying.” But even then, he keeps you laughing, too.”
Humor has been one of the most effective tools of survival for black people in America. Between the pain, the fear, and the rage that too often seems to be the unholy trinity of the African American experience, there is humor keeping us alive—keeping us from succumbing to the disease of disdain so infectious that it can make us hate ourselves. Our collective experience of disdain has been channeled through the filter of humor, where the pain becomes laughter. That was the magic of Richard Pryor, and the genius of Simple. Charles Ramsey has now joined that grand tradition of finding humor in the most horrific of circumstances. And it is not because he is ignorant, or ghetto, or simply doesn’t know how to better articulate himself. Charles Ramsey is making jokes because otherwise he would lose his mind. Listen to what he is really saying. He lived next door to that house for a year, and did not know what was going on. Now he knows. And because he is a human being with the ability to empathize—otherwise he wouldn’t have intervened—he is forced to think about what went on in that house, and how maybe, just maybe, he might have been able to end that nightmare one day earlier, or one week earlier, or six months earlier. And thinking like that can eat away at your soul.
Charles Ramsey’s expression of the horrible circumstances he’s now forever tied to has been misinterpreted by much of America. Many people have chosen to ignore the true horror of this story, not to laugh with a man who is trying to process it in a way that keeps him—or many of us—from going crazy, and instead have chosen to laugh at him. These are the same people that Simple would encounter in his day-to-day experiences, before recounting them to Langston Hughes and, sadly, they are the same people many of us encounter as well. We all live in a world where others judge us by the way we talk, or by the clothes we wear, or by the color of our skin, or by our gender, and if left to the devices of these other people, we would be made to think there is something wrong with us. It is up to us to find the strength to find the humor in this reality, and in the end, though they may laugh at us, instead of with us, the joke is on them.