Nothing new, or great, in stealing work of blacks

By Solomon Jones

Melania Trump, the wife of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump speaks during the first night off the Republican National Convention on Monday.
Melania Trump, the wife of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump speaks during the first night off the Republican National Convention on Monday. The Washington Post

Video evidence clearly indicated that a portion of Melania Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention was copied from a passage of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention.

The plagiarism we can forgive. After all, the stolen passages dealt with the principles of keeping one’s word, working hard and dreaming big. Such words are laudable, whether Democrats or Republicans utter them.

But once the plagiarism was proved, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, arrogantly told us that it was “beyond absurd” to believe that Melania Trump would steal Obama’s words. That denial – and the patent dishonesty with which it was delivered – was a continuation of a cultural problem that predates the Republican candidate for president.

To put it bluntly, America has often stolen the work of black people, and the Melania Trump speech was only the latest example of the centuries-old practice that Trump seeks to revive.

Make America Great Again, indeed.

In a country that was built on the stolen labor of blacks, stealing words from an African-American would seem somewhat innocuous. After all, plagiarism, unlike chattel slavery, does not involve murder, rape, kidnapping or lynching.

But plagiarism, in any other context, is an offense so serious that it has cost journalists their jobs, led students to be expelled and cost commentators their careers.

That’s because plagiarism, at its core, is trafficking in the stolen intellectual property of another. It is placing oneself in someone else’s skin and parading about as if it is your own.

And therein lies the irony. Michelle Obama’s skin is the very thing that GOP strategists have played upon for eight years, while stoking the fears of an angry, white electorate.

Conservative political and media personalities, including Donald Trump, have spent years casting aspersions on the first black president and first lady. From the Trump-led birther movement to the corporately funded tea-party movement, the GOP, through its silence, has lent tacit support to various movements that questioned the legitimacy of Barack and Michelle Obama.

Many of the questions have been tied directly to race.

Republicans were mostly silent when Russian artists portrayed our president as a monkey on a cutting board, or when conservative media outlets painted Michelle Obama as the stereotypical angry, black woman.

But at the Republican National Convention, when the Trump campaign’s speechwriters needed a few lines on the importance of honesty, hard work and sacrifice, they used a version of words uttered by Michelle Obama in 2008.

Those words were impactful when Obama spoke them in 2008, and they were equally meaningful when Melania Trump repeated most of them in 2016.

But it’s still disturbing to watch the GOP co-opt the timeless words of Michele Obama – a black woman they encouraged voters to fear. Doing so doesn’t make America great again. Instead, it revives the worst aspects of America’s hypocritical past.

It’s a past in which a black doctor named Charles Drew created breakthroughs in blood plasma, though blacks were not admitted to many of the hospitals that benefited. It’s a past in which the stolen creativity of African-American musicians enriched white artists from Elvis Presley to Justin Timberlake. It’s a past in which the stolen creations of African-Americans fueled everything from fashion trends to popular culture.

The ugliest aspect of that past is this: While whites benefited from our brilliance, we were consistently told we were inferior.

So watching Melania Trump channel Michele Obama without acknowledgement or apology is neither new nor surprising.

But if making America great again takes us back to the theft of black brilliance, perhaps it’s time for the GOP to reconsider what greatness means.

Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Email him at sj@solomonjones.com.