What do you call a homeless black man who has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, a police record that includes arrests and serving prison time for theft and forgery, and an ex-wife and nine children he’s unable to support?

America’s sweetheart, apparently.

I’m referring, of course, to Ted Williams, the man with the startlingly smooth radio voice who was “discovered” a week ago living on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, and has since become a national celebrity.

Despite his somewhat colorful past, Williams was quick to garner both sympathy and awe from almost everyone who has come into contact with his charming YouTube debut, including myself.

In that video, he appeared polite, humble, and perhaps most importantly, talented, actively challenging our collective stereotypical notion of what a homeless man in America should be. It seemed all he needed was a second chance in order to pick himself up and live out the unlikely but feel-good success story we’ve all become accustomed to seeing in Disney movies: A man has passion and talent, falls on hard times and is unable to pursue said passion and talent. He’s “discovered” and is thus finally able to realize his ever-important and miraculously in-tact passion and talent.

And just like that, Williams’ earnest narrative, gentle smile, and “golden” radio voice prompted an outpouring of sympathy and job offers from across the country. Let’s face it — we were all rooting for him.

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That he had been chosen by us, “the people”, made it even more compelling, turning him into the kind of exciting modern day celebrity whose very existence would not have been possible mere years ago, before the era of YouTube and viral video. Imagine: if it was our very attention that was catapulting him to fame, in some sense we had helped someone on the road to a new and better life, simply by clicking on a YouTube video. We were all do-gooders now.

And then, slowly but surely, the inconveniently messy details began to leak out.

Sure, we had known about the history of drug and alcohol abuse from watching the original interview. But it had seemed a brief blip on the screen of our love for Ted Williams. And when we found out about a few nonviolent crimes on his police record a day or so later, we took all that in stride, too. But that wasn’t the end of it.

Monday night, Williams was detained by the LAPD after he and his daughter got into a heated argument that reportedly turned physical. Yikes. And it’s becoming harder and harder to rep #TeamWilliams as his mother, ex-wife, and children each take turns stepping forward to offer their version of why they feel Williams is ill-equipped to handle his sudden fame. Maybe we could still let this all slide in the name of holding on to that warm fuzzy feeling we felt when we watched the original video and heard Williams’ story.

But the most recent detail threatens to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back: Yesterday, Williams, 53, reportedly admitted to Dr. Phil that he’s been drinking again, and needs to check into rehab, despite having previously insisted that he’s been sober for at least two years.

As these new details emerge that complicate Williams’ rosy public image, we can’t help but feel a bit culpable for the media frenzy we helped create around a man whose capacity to handle it is questionable at best.
We’re not wrong to feel this way. Williams’ lightning-fast rise to stardom is as much a testament to our great desire as a nation to redefine the narrative of what it means to be a black man in America as it is an indicator of our collective failure to do so effectively, in substance or rhetoric. We know we live in a post-Obama world, but the fact that we have a black president doesn’t change the situation: Black men continue to face systematic racism and injustice that puts them at greater risk for homelessness, unemployment and arrest in this country.

Perhaps it’s unfair to single Williams out for such brutal scrutiny. After all, he didn’t exactly sign up to have every detail of his life examined by the American public. But even beyond Williams, this is a trend within the larger framework of black men in viral videos that points to a strange compulsion on the part of the American public to pursue laughs, miracles, and “warm fuzzies” at the expense of more accurate but admittedly less uplifting narratives around race, class and gender in America. You’ll remember Antoine Dodson, of “Bed Intruder” fame, brought laughs to millions, but also (arguably) trivialized the issue of sexual assault in the black community.

Behind the story of these men that so easily and unanimously capture our hearts and sympathies is the untold story of thousands of others, just like them, who will not be so lucky as to receive their 15 seconds of YouTube fame. After all, as Andrew Golis points out on Yahoo News, before he was America’s favorite new YouTube sensation, Ted Williams was just one of more than 600,000 Americans who spent the night without a home. And before someone turned Antoine Dodson’s news interview into an auto-tuned sensation, he was facing down the real possibility of having to pursue vigilante justice to protect his family from attempted rape.

When depictions of black men go viral, are small or temporary gains in their personal fortunes or fame enough to justify the potential exploitation and cultural fallout that takes place along the way? It’s clear that we’re ready to move on as a nation from stereotypes of black men that depict them. But are we ready to stop objectifying black men in order to do so, or are these viral videos simply another incarnation of a two-dimensional black male?

Perhaps there is still something heartening about the Ted Williams story, despite the disappointing new details: it offers a bit of insight into how we see ourselves these days. In some strange sense, maybe we’re all standing on the side of the road with a sign in our hand, advertising our best qualities and hoping someone takes note. I suspect it may be progress enough that when America saw Ted Williams, they humanized him enough to see a little bit of themselves in his story.