Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book Review: Well, That Escalated Quickly

By Jami Deise

I usually plan my reading carefully – a book is a several-hour commitment, so I evaluate summaries and reviews, even when deciding whether to buy a free book for my Kindle. But in choosing Franchesca Ramsey’s Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes from an Accidental Activist, I was a bit more cavalier. I’d seen that the title was getting some buzz, so I requested it, even though I knew nothing about the book or the author. Had I known more, would I have still requested it? I’m not sure. As its long title implies, there’s a lot going on in this book. Some chapters I loved, some chapters I skimmed, and some left me weeping for humanity.

Ramsey is one of the first people to become famous through a YouTube video going viral (“Sh*t White Girls Say… to Black Girls,”) and even though the content pigeonholed her as a social justice warrior before being an SJW was cool/an alt-right insult, Ramsey was an actress and a comedian who carefully developed her YouTube channel as a springboard to an entertainment career. As someone whose early videos were hair-style tutorials for black women, it’s not surprising that Ramsey landed at the intersection of entertainment and advocacy. But the resulting book, while mostly linear, lacks focus; a criticism that makes me wonder if Ramsey feels that way in her own life.

The first several chapters of the book describe Ramsey’s early attempts at pursuing an entertainment career. She’s humble and self-deprecating in these accounts of her early YouTube videos (bad lighting, shower-curtain cameos) and her attempt to balance this work with her day job. Then “Sh*t White Girls…” goes viral, and suddenly she had an agent and an invitation to audition for SNL. At the same time, her new fame coupled with her already-established internet presence meant she became a fat target for every racist with a modem. When she tried to appease them, the black community called her an apologist and questioned her marriage to a white man.

Fame really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Ramsey is a thoughtful, earnest writer who sometimes bends over backwards to see the good in other people, even people who say things like, “She’s pretty for a black girl.” Sometimes, though, she’s a little too earnest. The book has a long section of social justice vocabulary words, a section on music she can’t listen to anymore, and a list of words and phrases that people committed to equality shouldn’t say. Reading those sections left me feeling exhausted… and guilty. Exhausted because who wants to be excoriated for using the word “gypped?” And guilty because, as a white woman, I can decide how committed I want to be to this movement. I didn’t have to have “the talk” with my white son, who will never be arrested for waiting for someone at Starbucks; no one will call the police on me because I did not wave at a neighbor when leaving an AirBnB. Ramsey, her friends, and family do not have that choice. They can’t just decide one day not to be black because it’s exhausting.

I do wonder, however, if Ramsey will someday feel the need to make a choice between comedy and social justice activism. While occasionally in the book she was able to mix them (such as her flowchart titled “Should I Unfriend This Person?”), most sections were either funny or earnest, but not both. Then again, there’s an old saying about comedy being tragedy plus time. Our country’s current social and political environment is definitely a tragedy. It’s going to take a long time before any of this can seem funny

Thanks to Grand Central Publishing for the book in exchange for an honest review.