What Does It Mean for a Black Man to be Captain America?

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Image Description: Anthony Mackie (left, standing in profile), wearing a dark suit and sporting black, close-cut hair and a goatee, looks down at Captain America’s shield (right, partially in profile). The partial view of the shield showcases its red-and-white color scheme. Behind Mackie is a painted portrait of Captain America (Chris Evans, right), wearing his signature dark blue uniform and matching helmet with a tawny-brown chin strap. Captain America’s helmet has eye-holes, and he is looking up into the distance stoically. Behind the portrait of Cap is a blue background with half of a white star on the right side.

WARNING: The following article contains a discussion on anti-Black racism and discrimination in America, as well as spoilers for Marvel Studios’ “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” now streaming on Disney+.

The Next Black Superhero

In 2018, global audiences were introduced to the first Black hero of the modern comic book movie age with “Black Panther.”

Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler’s hit film celebrated Blackness while also addressing complex subject matter related to diasporic Black cultures including  the harmful effects of colonialism (if only every Marvel villain could make an entrance like Kilmonger) and the ethics of isolationism. It also made King T’Challa a household name and cemented the late Chadwick Boseman as a Black Hollywood icon. In an essay for “The New York Times,” writer Evan Narcisse said “Black Panther” showed “how a costumed crusader’s intrinsic metaphorical power could open up new horizons.” But, as many made bones about the lessons Hollywood needed to (and probably wouldn’t) learn from the film’s massive success, I wondered if the world was ready to embrace more Black superheroes.

“Black Panther” seemingly heralded a diverse future for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now, more Black characters, like half-human/half-vampire antihero Blade and teen genius Ironheart, are slated for future live-action appearances in the franchise. Surely, if the world was capable of embracing one Black superhero, they could welcome others, right?

Well, “Avengers: Endgame” decided to test that theory. Towards the film’s end, an aged Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) handed his shield — and, by extension, the mantle of Captain America — to his friend and fellow Avenger Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Sam and Steve’s heartfelt goodbye was another instance of comic book movies mirroring their source material, but it was hard to ignore the significance of the moment.

Throughout its first ten years, white male heroes dominated the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and “Captain Marvel” slightly broke the mold by introducing the franchise’s first major female heroes in The Wasp and Captain Marvel, respectively, but their long-awaited debuts meant white characters were the heroes again. Steve entrusting Sam with the shield in “Endgame” not only signified Marvel’s willingness to let more BIPoC characters be heroes, but also an opportunity to define Sam as more than Captain America’s ally. Despite being a capable hero in his own right and possessing an emotional intelligence and maturity rarely seen in most male MCU characters, Sam was always relegated to the background in his various film appearances. In just one scene, Marvel Studios was setting up Sam for a bigger and brighter future, one where he finally got the chance to stand on his own. Unfortunately, the future that scene promised was clouded by an awful reality: the expected backlash toward Black superheroes.

When Sam Wilson became Captain America in the Marvel Comics Universe, controversy soon erupted as fans and a certain news network expressed their discomfort with a Black man wearing the stars and stripes, despite having no problem with the white guys — including reformed assassin Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan on the big screen) — who were Cap previously. Moreover, Marvel Comics ran several books where various characters, from disgruntled citizens to uneasy heroes, declared Steve the “real” Cap. Ultimately, the Sam Wilson era of “Captain America” comics ended on a lackluster note, and Steve was reinstalled as Cap just in time for acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s forthcoming run on the character. Needless to say, a precedent was set for this type of reaction. Even Sam himself was hesitant to accept the shield in “Endgame.”

In his essay, Narcisse asked an important question about a post-“Black Panther” future: “Now that the world has embraced one Black superhero, who is next? What are the other stories to be told?

Enter “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” the latest Disney +/Marvel Studios series that, in answering Narcisse’s question, has some important questions of its own to raise.

How Can a Black Man Represent a Country that Does Not Respect Him?

“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” was never going to discuss race, at least not fully.

Given how complex the subject is, I did not expect the show to do a deep, revolutionary treatise on race and racism in America. That isn’t to say the frustration some Black viewers felt over the show’s approach to the topic is unwarranted. “FATWS” prioritized breezy buddy comedy and lackluster action sequences at the expense of compelling storytelling, engaging characters, and insightful observations about America’s many and varied systemic abuses toward Black people. Instead of further exploring the inherent double-consciousness of Sam’s journey or giving Bucky’s PTSD and traumatic memories needed depth, “FATWS” coasted on the winning chemistry of its stars, who did the best they could do with material that covered too much and too little all in the span of six short episodes. While I didn’t expect “FATWS” to be as thoughtful as “WandaVision’s” coverage of trauma and grief, I did half-expect the show to deliver on its promise of relevant social commentary, even if the commentary wasn’t revelatory.

Having said that, I respect Marvel for giving series showrunner Malcolm Spellman the freedom to dive headfirst into the fraught and complicated subject. More often than not, Disney toes the line between being progressive and being safe, only to come up short on both fronts. But seeing a Disney property boldly but messily address how historically awful the systems that shaped this country is fascinating.

Yet, I’d argue the show is at its strongest when it’s not exploring the deeply rooted anti-Blackness found in American society. Rather, “FATWS” is at its most fascinating when it explores the inherent racial tensions of Sam’s journey. Over the course of the series, Sam’s storyline tackles two intriguing questions: Would America accept a Black man carrying the stars and stripes? Should a Black man even consider taking on the role of Captain America? Although the first question remains unanswered, “FATWS” spent a lot of its time ruminating on the second.

When discussing his character’s complicated relationship with Cap’s shield, Anthony Mackie said, “Sam considers the shield a representation of the country we live in. There’s a lot of trepidation as far as how does a Black man represent a country that does not represent him?”

Steve represented a mythic and comfortable version of America. Within the MCU and our real world, Captain America has long been synonymous with the ethos of the “American Dream,” the idea of America as a melting pot of cultures, traditions, and people, with a government committed to protecting every person’s opportunity to pursue their idea of happiness. Steve has long been a fictional embodiment of that famous “city on a hill” quote, standing as a shining example of what America can and should be. “FATWS” forces viewers to see America through Sam’s eyes, and it is far closer to the reality faced by most Black people.

You don’t need me to tell you that America has been historically terrible to Black people and other marginalized communities, from Asian and Latinx communities to LGBTQ+ and neurodivergent communities. Marginalized people have long been subjected to harmful forms of oppression, including police brutality, voter suppression, denied access to life-saving healthcare, and the current neoliberal capitalist system. Yet, most people (read: rich and powerful white people) would rather obscure, falsify, and/or erase the traumas, struggles, and realities of marginalized American life in favor of protecting the fanfic version of America that hails white people as saviors fighting for a fair and equal future long denied to them by the tyrannical Great Britain (whose own horrible history of racism needs unpacking). In pop culture, comic book heroes like Captain America have become synonymous with “America: the Fanfic,” serving as metaphorical figureheads of patriotism and exceptionalism who are often tasked with protecting those ideals from villains who seek to taint them.

You also don’t need me to tell you that marginalized communities are constantly contending with a version of America that is practically nonexistent in that fanfic, as is the intergenerational harm and collective trauma that has stemmed from centuries of constant oppression and injustice. When marginalized communities appear in “America: the Fanfic,” it is to bolster the image of America as a melting pot and a land promising equality and opportunity to all. It’s one of the few ways architects of American history (read: white historians) can avoid confronting America’s true history of violent imperialism and white supremacy.

In “FATWS,” it is clear that Sam sees the mythic America reflected t him every time he looks at the shield. Although the shield is meant to symbolize the mythic America long associated with Steve Rogers, it also hides the America marginalized people have long dealt with. And, in its first two episodes, “FATWS” depicts an America where the “American Dream” is often at odds with the American reality — as is the case with our real world. 

There’s the now-infamous loan scene from the premiere episode, where Sam and his sister Sarah are denied a loan from a microaggressive bank teller who blames Sam for his poor financial situation while simultaneously fanboying over him being an Avenger. The teller even asks for a selfie from Sam before denying the Wilson siblings the much-needed loan, but, judging by her reaction to the denial, Sarah expected this bank trip to go nowhere. After all, Sam’s Avenger status doesn’t change the fact he’s still a Black guy in modern America and Black families will always be left to struggle financially on their own — while simultaneously being blamed for their current financial troubles. In this scene, a Black family is made the scapegoat for the unjust conditions created by a capitalist system that works Black people to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion just to be paid less than white women and men.

In the second episode, Sam is racially profiled by the Baltimore police, the same police responsible for the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Before things can escalate, one of the cops recognizes Sam as an Avenger and immediately apologizes, but it is not hard to imagine what could have happened had that cop not recognized Sam — or worse, if the cop cared less about being in front of an Avenger. It’s a bleak contrast to a brief scene in 2012’s “The Avengers” where Steve directs cops to aid citizens during the Battle of New York. Rather than protest his authority, the cops immediately follow his orders. It’s a small scene, but a significant one nonetheless. Steve’s encounter with the cops reinforces his position as a walking representation of a unified America that fights to protect its citizens in times of national crisis. Sam’s, however, restates the common reality facing Black Americans when encountering police; all it takes is for a traffic stop, a 911 call, or an argument to escalate into a situation that can end in physical injury, emotional trauma, or, worse, death.

Of course, Steve could not predict the kind of world Sam would be stepping into after handing him the shield. Nor could Disney and Marvel, who are releasing this series after a summer of global Black Lives Matter protests and in the middle of a pandemic that continues to disproportionately affect people of color. Granted, acknowledging that racism is bad and life as a Black person is no walk in the park is the bare minimum. Unfortunately, this year has proven repeatedly that sometimes we need to shout the simplest messages louder for the people in the back. In the process, however, “FATWS” ponders something else: Why burden Black people with the task of being America’s savior?

We saw it happen to Stacey Abrams and Black women voters during the 2020 election. We saw it happen to Sheryl Underwood and Elaine Weltwroth during Sharon Osbourne’s outburst on CBS’s “The Talk.” Constantly expecting Black people to do the work to achieve long-lasting change while America’s wealthy and white elite do nothing is enraging. It’s not the Black community’s job to fix America, especially when America only repays their efforts with further disrespect and harm.

Sam makes this exact statement when he publicly sets aside Cap’s shield and the mantle of Captain America early on in the premiere. Although he explains no one can replace Steve, it is evident — well, to this viewer, at least— Sam made his decision because he is tired of being expected to help a country that would rather dehumanize his people than protect them.

When asked about Sam’s relationship to Cap’s shield, Spellman said, “He truly believes that there’s an argument to be made that red, white, and blue — stars and stripes — inherently represents oppression.”

And, thanks to the introduction of another key character, Sam later learns there is some truth to that argument.

The Forgotten “Star-Spangled Man”

On its face, the second episode, “The Star-Spangled Man,” is referring to John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a decorated veteran who is selected by the government to be the next Captain America … right after Sam publicly set the shield aside.

Like Steve, John is a white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes. In his first national television interview, John flashes a megawatt smile and tries to play it cool as the reporter reads off his academic and military accomplishments like he’s totally not enjoying someone fawning over him. Moreover, John gets a hero’s welcome; his first television interview takes place at his old high school where the live crowd in attendance is treated to a marching band’s funky rendition of Cap’s theme song, also called “The Star-Spangled Man.” It’s reminiscent of Steve earning hearty cheers for saving Bucky, who led said cheers, and his regiment in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

As the episode goes on, we learn John isn’t the only star-spangled man, nor is Steve the first to be injected with the super-soldier serum. Enter Isaiah Bradley, an elderly Black man living in Baltimore with his grandson Elijah.

Portrayed by Carl Lumbly, Isaiah is eventually revealed as a survivor of the U.S. government’s repeated attempts at recreating the serum that transformed Steve into Captain America. While serving during the Korean War, Isaiah was the only soldier who successfully gained powers from the serum and was deployed as the government’s weapon. When the government was done with him, Bradley was imprisoned and further experimented on until he managed to find a way back to his family. Though elderly, Bradley has retained much of his superhuman strength and nurtured a deep hatred for the government that destroyed his life.

As Sam and Bucky seek more information about the season’s Big Bad, a quasi-terrorist group called the Flag-Smashers, Bucky takes Sam to Baltimore and reveals Isaiah’s existence. Unsurprisingly, Isaiah is not happy to get visitors, especially Bucky, who he recognizes as the Winter Soldier. Bradley remembers their first encounter in Korea, especially because it ended with him ripping off half of Bucky’s metal arm and the government retrieving him for more experiments. Yet, Bucky justifies keeping Isaiah’s existence a secret so the man could live in peace — and keep Steve from dealing with more Winter Soldier baggage. Naturally, Sam is furious and he’s not buying Bucky’s excuses, even though they seem to come from a genuine place of honesty.

The presence of Isaiah Bradley and his justified rage forces Sam to contend with the root cause of his initial rejection of the Captain America mantle: how can someone represent a country that has never represented their people?

It’s a question Steve, Bucky, or John have never had to consider; being blissfully ignorant is one of the many perks of having white skin, after all. Sam and Isaiah, however, aren’t so lucky. Being Black means being acutely aware of the many and varied unjust systems that seek to keep you oppressed and ensure power remains with the dominant forces driving American society — specifically the white and wealthy. Moreover, being Black means witnessing for yourself how little your life and body matters.

Isaiah’s disturbing backstory in the series remains largely unchanged from his first appearance in Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s 2003 miniseries “Truth: Red, White, and Black”. Both bear a chilling parallel to the real-life Tuskegee Syphilis Study as Isaiah was one of 300 Black soldiers tortured and experimented on as the government attempted to recreate the super-soldier serum while denying the soldiers any treatment for the body horror and mental deficiencies stemming from each failed attempt. Out of the 300 unwilling participants, Isaiah survived and became the U.S. government’s next super-soldier.

Steve and John were welcomed back warmly by the government whereas Isaiah was further tortured and brutalized. Bucky got the opportunity to redeem himself and be of service to the government while Isaiah was tossed aside after the government decided he was no longer useful to them. Moreover, despite his deadly Winter Soldier history, Bucky got to reclaim his status as Sergeant Barnes and become a sort of hero through his involvement with Steve, Sam, and the Avengers. In contrast, Isaiah was erased from American history, effectively hiding how the government tarnished Steve Rogers’ legacy and brutalized Black soldiers in the pursuit of American exceptionalism.

In rewriting Steve’s legacy, “FATWS” tackles America’s willingness to rewrite its history to omit its darker, more violent truths. A TV show that reminds us of America’s collective amnesia over its violent exploitation of Black bodies is nothing new. Hearing it in a Marvel Studios project, however, is different but no less infuriating. Learning the modern concept of superheroes in the MCU essentially stemmed from a traumatized Black man largely forgotten about because a white man kept him hidden is one of the most devastating aspects of the series.

It would be wrong to reduce Bucky’s decision to an instance of white guilt, but that choice illustrates an interesting notion about Black justice. Though it doesn’t explicitly say this, “FATWS” suggests that Black justice is a burden on white men. For Black justice to be truly achieved, white men would have to confront their long-held beliefs and deep-rooted biases. Transformative justice means questioning the very nature of American exceptionalism and why it continues to be upheld when we know how dangerous it is for society’s most vulnerable communities — including the Black community. We know that Steve would have sought out Isaiah and dedicated himself to bringing justice, as he did in the comics, but Steve’s journey would have likely upended everything he held about the country he loved and fought for. Additionally, Isaiah probably would not have accepted Steve’s help.

To Isaiah, Steve, Bucky, and even Sam are reminiscent of the people responsible for the horrific physical and mental trauma he endured at the hands of the U.S. government. Trusting either of them would mean being back on the government’s radar and doing that would put his grandson — his only next of kin it seems — in danger. Although Sam already experienced firsthand how red, white, and blue and the stars and stripes symbolize oppression just as much as it symbolizes exceptionalism, meeting Isaiah uncovers an awful, hidden truth.

Isaiah Bradley may have been a super-soldier, but the U.S. government was never going to let him be their hero or their mascot. He was a superpowered Black man the government could deploy — and torture — in secret while devoting time to making white men like Steve and John Walker the ideal heroes Americans can look to and celebrate for generations. Dehumanizing and erasing Black men from America’s military history not only allows for a whitewashed version of said history to continue circulating, but it also connects the U.S. to its Nazi adversaries in unsettling ways. Yet, this isn’t so surprising.

After all, not only was America built on the backs of enslaved Black men and women who had their labor exploited and their bodies physically and sexually brutalized but America and Nazism had always gone hand in hand. There’s an irony to Cap decking Hitler on his iconic comic book cover, but there is also something hypocritical about Steve punching Hitler while the United States further fortified its own racist policies. Isaiah is a walking representation of the historically immoral and unethical horrors America has repeatedly committed in the name of exceptionalism. Over the course of its six episodes, “FATWS”  goes from asking how someone from a marginalized community can represent a country that has never represented them to why.

Why Would a Black Man Want to be Captain America?

From the government lying about their intentions with Cap’s shield after he publicly set it aside to meeting Isaiah Bradley and learning what the government did to him, it’s only logical to ask why Sam would want to be the next Captain America. Although the show stops short of explicitly asking this question, it resurfaces throughout each episode in different ways.

There are obvious forms, such as the loan scene and the racial profiling scene. Then, there are the subtle ones, like John referring to Sam as Captain America’s “wingman,” which signals that, despite his own contributions as an Avenger and in the military, Sam will always be reduced to a sidekick. Or Bucky guilt-tripping Sam for rejecting the shield, a decision he paints as Sam either “giving up” or proving Steve wrong about his worthiness as the next Captain America — and, somehow, Bucky’s fear of never achieving redemption and peace. (Oh, the pieces that can be written about Bucky’s obvious white privilege in this show…) But, the closest the show comes to asking this question aloud is when Sam talks with Isaiah on his own.

The series’ fifth episode, aptly titled “Truth,” sees Sam tackle the differing interpretations of Captain America’s shield. There is no way to oThroughoutbjectively view Captain America’s shield, yet the status quo (a.k.a. whiteness) demands the shield and the men who wield it must be white sentinels of liberty. But what about the marginalized people who view that shield, the white men who wield it, and what they both represent with disdain?

Later in the episode, after further disclosing disturbing details about his backstory, Isaiah bluntly tells Sam, “They will never let a Black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever want to be.” It’s a brutal line, but considering the hell Isaiah had been through, he has earned the right to sit in his anger and express how he feels. His honest observation illustrates an obvious truth about the way Captain America’s shield is viewed; it is expected for most people, including the marginalized, to regard that shield and the men who have taken it up with respect.

The shield is symbolic of an ideal America long promised to everyone. And that version of America can only be achieved if the men who wield the shield are also treated with respect and dignity. They, too, are an extension of America’s long-held values, the ideals many in the country would like to make a reality. But Isaiah can’t believe that. He won’t. Isaiah’s time with the U.S. government taught him that Captain America just reinforces that dangerous “America First” ideology. Isaiah knows firsthand that respect, dignity, and salvation don’t apply to Black and brown folks, as well as other marginalized communities. Yet, in not-so-subtly deterring Sam from becoming Captain America, Isaiah poses a challenge to the hero: choose and define what Captain America means to him.

“FATWS” knows Sam and Isaiah are not one and the same. They also perceive each other differently. Isaiah sees his younger self in Sam, a young Black man trying to do the right thing and fighting for those who cannot fight on their own; on the same token, Sam sees all of the long-held beliefs and truths he had about Blackness in modern America reflected in Isaiah, who has challenged him to confront them rather than continue to deny them. By the end of their conversation, Sam sits with Isaiah’s words long enough to come to his own conclusion.

As a Black viewer, it may seem odd to see a Black character be so optimistic in the progress America has made in the face of overwhelming injustice and inequality, but Sam chooses to be optimistic and believe he can create more change. He chooses to believe that change can only come if he focuses on the systems and puts pressure on them to change, to do the work necessary to create change on his own terms. Not because Steve, Bucky, or the U.S. government expect him to. To Sam, the shield is not just a symbol of America’s failed promises, but also an opportunity to reclaim what America continues to deny Black people: power.

The power to bring about change. The power to hold unjust systems accountable even when faced with the hurdles deployed by the neoliberal capitalist system that seeks to maintain the status quo. The power to fight for the innocent and protect the good.

For so long, the shield and title of Captain America have symbolized power, specifically the imbalance and abuse of power committed by the white and wealthy. Steve is power in its idealized form, John is power when it is abused continuously to ensure America’s position as a global police force. Look no further than the heinous act of brutality John commits to assert the power and status promised to him, the power he was told rightfully belonged to him because of the color of his skin and how he exhibited his patriotism.

In “Truth,” Sam confronts the question of why he would want to be Captain America head-on. Eventually, he reaches a conclusion fitting not only of his character but of Black heroes as a whole: despite the anti-Blackness in the world, Sam believes that standing up and fighting for everyone is the right thing to do. In spite of everything thrown at him, Sam will choose that fight, but not because Steve wanted him to or because Bucky demands him to. And he sure as hell won’t do it because John is not emotionally stable enough to. Rather, Sam is choosing that for all of us, from his sister and nephews to Isaiah and his grandson.

What Does It Mean for a Black Man to be Captain America? (or, In Conclusion)

So, back to the first question: What does it mean for a Black man to be Captain America?

We know that a Black Captain America isn’t the definitive solution to the government’s problems within the context of the MCU’s America, nor is it the definitive solution to Hollywood’s ongoing issues with race and representation, but these truths lead us nowhere. In fact, they aren’t entirely applicable to the question at hand, so let’s take it back to square one.

It’s true that America has been historically terrible to the Black community. The story of America was built on the backs of Black men, women, and children who were dehumanized, brutalized, and forgotten. Yet, those designated the position of chronicling American history are influential white people blessed with privilege and status. As a result, the story of America was defined by its proclamation as the land of opportunity, a place where people of all backgrounds could pursue their idea of happiness and they would have a government that would fight to ensure that right no matter what. That story leaves out the darker, more harrowing parts, like how white settlers colonized Indigenous lands and, of course, how African people were enslaved and exploited for their labor. Anti-Blackness did not end when enslaved Black people were freed, nor did it end when legal Jim Crow segregation was finally wiped out.

Anti-Blackness still reigns supreme, especially in America. For the small bursts of progress made in the country, it’s evident that not much has changed — including the image of Captain America and what the hero and his mighty shield represent to many Americans. The status quo demands Cap be a patriotic white man who can be a mascot for the government and a hero for the American people — and never ask what it means to represent this country, let alone America’s relationship with its most vulnerable and underrepresented communities.

For a Black man like Sam, it’s much different. This question weighs heavily on his mind throughout the series; it’s a uniquely American burden but Black people and other marginalized communities are left to shoulder it and its constant variations. The best conclusion Sam comes to is that being Captain America means accepting the many and varied systemic failures and abuses America has committed toward the marginalized. Denying that history lets the cycle to continue, making a Black man taking up such a mantle look like thoughtless virtue signaling at best. Yet, Sam’s acceptance of the shield is also a rejection of the status quo. Captain America has been long seen as an embodiment of what America should strive to be, but the only way for America to become that shining city on a hill is to acknowledge its original sin and reject the systemic inequalities that served as a foundation for the systems built upon it.

The image of a Black man carrying the stars and stripes, the fact that he now has the power to redefine what Captain America’s shield and legacy could mean to the millions of people who look like him is both a bold form of resistance and an overtly political statement.

“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” just might be the first Disney property that embodies the age-old axiom of “the personal is political.

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