"Billie Jean", Distractions, Doctoral Thesis, Failure, Fear of a "Black" America, Michael Jackson, Plagiarism, Theft, Whose America?, Writing
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, because I had little trust for folks in my academic world, including my dissertation advisor. But I had no idea that I should have extended my lack of trust to trained academicians who were so devoid of ideas and so bereft of imagination that they would steal from little-old me.
My off-and-on dealings with Zimmerman was where I learned eggs should never mix with stones. In 1994, Zimmerman was an assistant professor in the subfield of social and historical foundations of education at West Chester University. I and a couple of other Black doctoral students (the latter two from the University of Pittsburgh School of Education) had promised to present our work at a conference Zimmerman had organized, but reneged at the last minute. The two thirtysomething Black students felt leery about the invitation. “This is very disappointing…I wish you’d let us know sooner…I was so looking forward to reading your work,” Zimmerman said haltingly over the phone with a tone that combined reassurance with condescension when I informed him of our cancellation. Zimmerman had me agree to send him a copy of my dissertation, “A Substance of Things Hoped For”: Multiculturalism, Desegregation, and Identity in African-American Washington, D.C., 1930–1960, once I finished it.
I bumped into Dr. Zimmerman twice at scholarly conferences after that, in 1996 and 1997. He sought me out about my dissertation, for what purpose, I wasn’t sure. I was too worn out after finishing my degree to find out. The next and last time I saw Zimmerman was at the end of April 1999. New York University invited me to their campus for a job interview in the school of education. It was for a social foundations in education opening. I learned that Zimmerman was on the search committee. He had moved on from his previous job, and was now a tenured associate professor.
I gave a seventy-five-minute job talk about my dissertation research and soon-to-be book topic, titled “Fear of a ‘Black’ America: Multiculturalism and Black Education in Washington, DC.” During the talk and Q-and-A session that followed, I noticed Zimmerman had brought with him a paperback copy of my doctoral thesis to the talk. He must have ordered a copy from ProQuest, the main depository for dissertations in the US.
“Can you tell me more about why Black parents didn’t want Little Black Sambo taught in DC Public Schools?,” Zimmerman asked. “Why do you keep using ‘multiculturalism’ to describe what happened in the past — isn’t this anachronistic?,” he inquired with a bit of disdain. “Do you have a publisher lined up for your manuscript?,” I remember him probing, as if that was really his damn business.
It should have been obvious, but at the time, I honestly wasn’t sure why Zimmerman asked me so many questions. Between a two-year-long search for full-time work, of living off fumes from the one $1,850-class I taught at Duquesne University every semester, of burnout and rage from completing my degree, my head wasn’t right. I also wanted to move on from Pittsburgh. “I’d just about have to wait for Joe or Larry [my former dissertation and graduate advisors] to die before I’d get a job that pays around here,” I said to my significant other numerous times.
I didn’t get the NYU job. Six weeks after that interview, I ended up with a job in civic education in suburban DC, working with high-potential high school juniors and seniors. Soon after, I landed a literary agent with my book proposal for Fear of a “Black” America.
Three years and two jobs later, I heard from Zimmerman again, indirectly. I had stumbled into an opportunity while already working as a nonprofit administrator for the New Voices National Fellowship Program to teach a graduate course in social foundations of education at George Washington University. In looking for books suitable for the class, I discovered Zimmerman had published Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools, his book on a century of America’s culture wars as embodied in history textbooks. I decided to buy it in case any of my students wanted to research this topic.
In those pages, Zimmerman carefully avoided referring to the book Little Black Sambo. Instead, he used the term “Sambo” in reference to mainline history textbooks from the 1940s and 1950s. But in one paragraph, Zimmerman’s skill in textual microsurgery broke down like an old and rusted-out car. Where Zimmerman had written, “[e]ven champions of so-called intergroup education in the 1950s turned a blind eye — or a disdainful frown — on black text protests,” I had written, “the Washington Post [in September 1947] published an editorial on the Little Black Sambo controversy that accused the [NAACP-DC] Branch and the…black Washington community of overreacting.”
Where he had wrapped his quote with “opined the Washington Post, denouncing blacks’ ‘humorless touchiness’ about the term ‘Sambo’ in textbooks,” I had the fuller quote, as “the Post could not ‘believe that the humorless touchiness reflected in these protests represents the attitude of Negroes in general.’” And where Zimmerman cited the original sources as the Washington Post from September 30, 1947 and some reference to papers from the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, I also had those same references, plus additional references to the Washingtoniana Division of DC Public Library.
If this theft of ideas and research was pure coincidence, then so is the existence of systemic racism in the US. Zimmerman had access to my doctoral thesis for at least three years before the publication of his book. The likelihood that Zimmerman independently went through the same files at Moorland-Spingarn to address the specific issue of “Sambo” references in textbooks during the 1950s when the controversy over the children’s book Little Black Sambo occurred in 1947 is infinitesimally low (he doesn’t refer to Moorland-Spingarn as a place he visited to conduct research in Whose America?).
The specific Washington Post quote could be coincidental, but not when combined with the Moorland-Spingarn citation. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, one couldn’t just do a Google search for a then-55-year-old article. One either had to dig it out from among the thousands of files in archives like Moorland-Spingarn at Howard University, where I spent nearly two weeks in March 1995 uncovering information about issues like the 1947 Little Black Sambo controversy. Or, a researcher would have had to go through reels of newspaper microfilm at libraries looking for clues and key words, like I did for another two weeks at the Washingtoniana Division of DC Public Library’s main branch, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, in February 1995. My doctoral thesis was never cited as a source in these sections, either.
A couple of weeks later, I found Dr. Zimmerman’s NYU email address. I wrote to him about his erasure of my years of sweat, tears, and even blood (in the case of paper cuts) in gathering the information that had gone into my dissertation. “I don’t know who you are,” was his one-sentence response, as was and remains the typical retort from those who are caught using another’s words, work, and ideas as their own. “Fuck it,” I said to myself after that exchange. I definitely should have found a lawyer back then.
I received a note a few days after I discovered Zimmerman’s thievery from my one-time agent Claudia Menza about the acquisition editors at Random House. They had come close to accepting my book, but ultimately rejected Fear of a “Black” America for publication. It was a gut punch while walking carelessly through Central Park on a cloudless early fall day. The kind of punch that leaves one falling on their ass while exchanging pain for air, trying one’s hardest not to cry or scream for fear of embarrassment. I eventually self-published my book in 2004, a shell of the dream I originally held for this manuscript.
I hated academia and academicians. I hated myself for the desperate academic/nonacademic/non-writing writer-who-also-wanted-to-write-more it turned me into. I hated that I had earned a PhD, only to find myself working as a nonprofit administrator where the only thing people cared about was bringing in more multimillion-dollar grants. Most of all, I hated that I had never thought enough of the possibility that others would find ingenious and craven ways to steal from me, and that I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
Fast-forward more than a decade later to 2018. I am no longer working as a nonprofit administrator chasing dollars for watered-down education and social justice efforts. I am teaching full-time as contingent faculty between two universities. My writings are now meant for the world, and not for academia. After reading a story about how a plagiarist had copied and pasted huge portions of the author Leta Hong Fincher’s words from Leftover Women, it dredged up my experiences with Dr. Zimmerman.
This is how the big dogs do it. They steal your ideas, your ideals and your soul, really. They do it while simultaneously erasing you from the public record. They violently make you into the intellectual undead, a ghost that exists, but cannot haunt. Like with Napoleon allegedly blasting away at the Sphinx’s nose for fear that the truth of ancient Egypt as a Black civilization would drown the myth of white Egypt. The big dogs make you feel the theft, the death, and the erasure, right down to them blowing your bits of graphite, wood pulp, and synthetic rubber off of history’s pages.
“And mother always told me be careful of who you love/And be careful of what you do ’cause the lie becomes the truth.” These are the last two lines of the second stanza in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” That Michael Jackson — the Black genius that he was — also was a pedophile who preyed on star-struck children and their naive parents. He lied by omission and commission, for nearly half his life. The topic of multiculturalism, and being able to profit from it, no longer matters to me. But having people like Zimmerman out there profiting from their theft and their lies does.