When Their Lies Become The Truth

Stealing someone’s words can erase their dreams and their worth

Donald Earl Collins

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Michael Jackson in the middle of his first public moonwalk while singing “Billie Jean” (cropped screen shot), Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, May 16, 1983. (NBC/Starvista; https://www.smoothradio.com/artists/michael-jackson/first-moonwalk-motown-video-1983/)

This is the third of my multi-part series on my paths as a writer. This piece is one that I’ve work on for nearly a year. Mostly because of the issue to out or not out the guy who plagiarized me in 2002. Partly because I do not really want the kind of attention this post could bring. But the more uncomfortable and painful a writing becomes all the more reason to share it with readers.

There is an ugly truth that inhabits every arena of work. Racist, misogynistic, and elitist politics make all workplaces toxic, some dangerously and lethally so. The never-ending palace intrigue, the perpetual ambitious drive and thirst for clout, the absolute must of self-promotion. All of it makes the idea of “just here to do a job” laughable.

With this toxicity comes the need to lay claim to words and works that are not one’s own. In academia, it means stealing ideas, references to primary resources, even actual words from the work of lesser known academicians. All for the lofty prize of permanent tenure and plum professorships at elite universities. All while destroying careers and breaking people.

I was a victim of such a theft. The plagiarist was one Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, today a decently prominent full professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, with a career that was undoubtedly helped along by a book about the so-called culture wars. It nearly broke me as a writer. It took nearly 15 years for me to fully recover. In some ways, I am still recovering.

My story is a case study of how easily White mediocrity can trump Black excellence unless or until the latter forces acknowledgment out of the world. But it is also my tale of an aspiring academician snuffed out in his younger years, a wonder-man who had yet to decide the kind of thinker, writer, educator, and gift-user he wanted to be.

I was only partly aware of the possibility of being plagiarized in the 1990s. Oh, I was paranoid enough. As a Black doctoral candidate at lily-White Carnegie Mellon University, I worried about losing my own work and not finishing. By the summer of 1996, I was mailing out seven 3.5-inch, not-so-floppy-disks-at-a-time to my trusted circle…

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Donald Earl Collins

Freelancer via @washingtonpost | @TheAtlantic |@AJEnglish | @Guardian; American Univ. & UMUC history prof. Invite me to write/speak: donaldearlcollins@gmail.com