First, let's take a little trip back to 2008.
In the Summer of 2008, America was a country that had yet to begin patting itself on the back for its alleged embrace of a post-racial state. America was, however, a country where candidate and then-freshman Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat from Illinois, and his wife -- particularly his wife -- Michelle Obama, were a bit suspect.
Reporters had discovered that while Barack Obama was Hawaii-born, the son of a white mother and African father and raised primarily by his white grandparents with Midwestern roots, Michelle Obama had a different story. She was raised on the South Side of Chicago, the progeny of two black parents, a city water works employee and a secretary.
Michelle Obama was not biracial, in that comforting-to-some-people kind of way. She was just multiracial in the way that almost all black Americans are -- a few generations back and via DNA mingling that may not have been voluntary. Michelle Obama was the product of a family up from the American South and the unique brutalities visited upon black citizens. She was born to people up north who had to work hard at work then, work harder at home to accept that race-related limits on where their lives would go and where their families could live remained.
These were people with real reason to be angry -- angry in that, you know, black and scary way. These were people who had lived the boxed-in reality about which the Kerner Commission wrote in 1967, but somehow sent their son and daughter to Princeton. These were people who propelled their children a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. Yet, while at Princeton, that Michelle Robinson (later Obama) wrote a college thesis that sprung, in part, from her understanding of all of the above.
For some on the right, the combination was suspicious. It affirmed, for those who wanted to think it, just how very much government overreach and programs like affirmative action had marred vaunted institutions. For some on the left, particularly the crowd to whom Sen. Hillary Clinton was trying to appeal when she made those comments about hard-working white people, they wondered if they had reason to worry. What really would become of them and their political needs if a black man with that wife whispering in his ear took the White House?
By late July, the New Yorker magazine -- one of those publications not widely read but highly influential because of those who do read it or claim to do so, along with the actual depth and breath of its content -- sought to capture this national, race-based wringing of hands.
The resulting cover can be seen above. But here are a few key features that must be understood.
In the background hung the portrait of an unidentified figure dressed in a manner reminiscent of the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini. It rests in a place of honor over an Oval Office hearth. Below the portrait, inside the fireplace, a fire consumed an American flag. In the foreground stood Barack Obama, in clothing and footwear of which the Grand Ayatollah might have approved. Beside Barack Obama stood, Michelle Obama, outfitted with an Angela Davis-sized afro, combat fatigues and boots, a face full of off-shade makeup and what looks like a weapon reserved for warfare and mass shootings. Last, but not least, the artist included a string of ammunition slung across Michelle Obama's body. And, the loving couple expressed their unity with a soul brother and sister pound (a salute regrettably renamed the "fist bump" in the years that have followed and a study in cultural appropriation unto itself).
The implication? Obama was already a mysterious and possibly untrustworthy figure for millions of Americans. His childhood included a stretch in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population. But to make matters worse, Michelle Obama, his wife and likely adviser, had told an audience that for the first time in her adult lifetime the 2008 election had made her feel proud of her country. Michelle Obama had added that this pride was not just because her husband had done well on the campaign trail. This pride was rooted in the fact that Americans were hungry for change and unification and she has long wanted that. But alas, that bit of context -- yes, context -- was not always reported. (Watch the video below for yourself).
America was very afraid.
The New Yorker cover became a controversy unto itself. But the question of the Obamas' loyalty to country, to American values, to the American way, did not disappear. The questions about their solidarity with the rest of us -- and especially that of Michelle's -- possible anger and what these two might do if American voters installed them in the White House -- well, those continued.
They remain with us to this day. Doubt it? Please see nights one and two of the Republican convention. Please see the bulk of Donald Trump's political commentary since 2012. Please see the post-convention speech comments of Antonio Sabato, Jr.
Now, back to the summer of 2008. When Michelle Obama and her speechwriters began crafting the address she would deliver at the 2008 Democratic Convention in late August, all of this was ambient. Plus, everyone who had a hand in that speech or its delivery was well aware that Michelle Obama, a lawyer and accomplished woman in her own right, would be delivering that speech as the wife of the first black man to become the major party nominee for the White House. She was the one who would need to convince America of the contents of his heart and his head, his values and, with that, his fitness for office. But some of America was more skeptical -- even leery or frightened -- by her than him.
So, on Aug. 25, 2008, when Michelle Obama took the Democratic National Convention stage she delivered what more than a few commentators and Trump surrogates have minimized as standard bromides about American life. In fact they were, for those like Michelle Obama or Langston Hughes -- who know about the death of a dreams due to social forces beyond one's control -- nothing of the sort. When Michelle Obama, black woman, over six feet tall in heels, stood on that stage and affirmed the accuracy of that standard America dream stuff, she was telegraphing two very distinct messages as hard as she possibly could.
For those who feared her, her husband or her influence, she was saying, See, we Obamas are mainstream. We share those mainline American values. We've found a way to live with the truth of what we know about race and disadvantage in the United States and remain hardworking and hopeful. These are the values we share and pass between us. This is what we tell our kids. Our conversations are not of race war and weapons but working hard and playing by the rules. For those who never feared this couple, and especially Michelle, she was saying, "I've got this. My double conciseness -- an essential tool for black Americans, according to W.E.B. DuBois -- is well developed. It has been polished to a shine. I know how to present myself to Americans disinclined to trust or view me as their equal on sight. And I am confident, not apologetic, about who I am."
It was a fast-acting formula of political Milk of Magnesia, a magical brew in times of gut-level voter distress.
It was, in particular, an act aimed at soothing, very likely, some of the very people most eager to minimize the decision made by Melania Trump or her speechwriter. And, when Melania Trump and/or her speechwriter then took those words without doing the work, slogging through the drafts and used them in support of a long-held set of Republican ideals about hard work being the only determinant of where in life one goes, well, that, too, was an overtly political act.
It was nothing short of political jujitsu.
Someone -- the speechwriter is taking the blame -- took words they liked and used them for a very different purpose, no credit given. And the telegraphed message here is: America, the Republican message about hard work and opportunity is right, no matter what the other party, several think tanks and researchers, four-decade-old economic trends say. Forget the reporting. Look at me. I'm a legal immigrant who worked hard and I'm a resounding economic success. America is a great country.
And, like the work of people willing to take a cornrow and rename it the A-lister's "boxer braid" illustrated with images of Kim Kardashian, a speechwriter or spouse willing to ignore a long history full of very different and meaningful context, then evade so much as a hat tip to the creativity that came before, this is not a form of flattery. This is not a minor thing.
(For an accurate and respectful history of the cornrow and its name, click through this slideshow)
This is plagiarism at its worst, with an added dose of what can most politely be described as something else.