No Black man can be Captain America and no self-respecting African American should want to be it either.
That’s the advice that Isaiah Bradley, an African American Korean War veteran and super soldier who was imprisoned and experimented on for thirty years by his own government, has for Sam Wilson, AKA the Falcon in the Disney Marvel series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
And that is a lot, especially considering that Steve Rogers (the original Cap) had asked Sam, the African American airman who became his right hand, teammate and best friend, to accept the shield and continue as Captain America.
But, is “America” ready for a Black Captain America? More importantly, can Sam make peace with being Captain America and wearing the symbol of an America that does not value him as a person.
At first glance, it seems like these series are about how the Falcon becomes Captain America- but there is so much more than that. So, let’s start unpacking.
These series are about present-day United States of America. It focuses on Black Lives Matter, white anxiety, xenophobia, nativism, and the hope that “America” can still achieve justice and equality for all. All of this is explored through the characters’ back stories and inner struggles. But it is even better presented through the linking of present struggles (both real and imagined for the story) with this country’s hyper glorified and whitewashed past.
There is no Make America Great Moment here. The series makes explicit that mythical time was only great for those whose skin color and genitalia gave them access to power– and that real change is badly needed.
The “villain”, Karli Morgenthau, is a very young woman of mixed racial ancestry who has been enhanced by a version of the Super Soldier Serum that gave powers to the original Captain America. She leads the One World One People movement known as the Flag Smashers- a direct anti-nationalist symbol. What do they want? Simply put they want to stay where they are (which is what most undocumented immigrants want), and to stop the world from going back to business as usual.
During the five years after the “Blip” (when Thanos disappeared half the living creatures of the universe, Avengers, Infinity War– 2018), the artificial borders of Earth came down and immigrants were welcomed because they were sorely needed. But in this reality, six months after the Avengers restored the universe (Endgame, 2019) and brought everyone back, a Global Relocation Authority is preparing to repatriate (with the use of extreme force if necessary) those who migrated and kept the world running during those difficult five years. Immigrants are no longer wanted and instead are treated like a pest- or like immigrants are treated in host countries when no longer needed, or when scapegoating them serves a political purpose as it did for Hitler and the Nazis and as it does for the MAGA-Trump movement.
Karli’s identity as a racially mixed young woman is a recognition of the shifting politics in the United States (and in most of the world) and I would not be surprised if the writers found inspiration in the Congressional Squad (U.S. House Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilham Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib) when delineating her character. Karli is a strong, young, multiracial female bent on bringing equality and justice into the world. And she’s got a point.
The Global Relocation Authority harks back to two of the Unites States most shameful crimes: the camp internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII which was conducted by the War Relocation Authority – and the forced repatriation of millions of guest workers after the war in what is known as Operation Wetback.
Keep in mind that young men of Japanese ancestry, who were interned themselves, volunteered to fight for the United States, the country interning their families for no other reason than the prevalent open racism of 1940s Unites States. Yet they volunteered to fight in the “Nisei” 442nd Infantry Regiment and became one of the most decorated combat units in U.S. history. All that while the families of many remained in internment camps.
On the other hand, in the series, with the return of half the population vanished during the blip- the people who relocated to keep whole countries going, are now to be deported. This is what happened when the United States ended the Bracero program after millions of Americans mobilized during WWII returned home.
In 1954, (a year after the Korean War ended) the labor force that kept the United States, many of its allies, and their soldiers fed and supplied, were rounded up and forced like cattle into freight trains and trucks and shipped to Mexico. The linkages to a very unfair and openly racist recent past don’t end here.
Throughout the series, Sam (the Falcon), struggles with accepting his role as Captain America and wearing the symbol of an America that does not value him as a person. Captain America’s shield is supposed to represent the best of us, the best values of the United States- but how can Sam carry the shield for a country that treats him and those who look him like second class citizens (at best) and like criminals- too often?
This constant struggle is only exacerbated by his exchanges with Karli. They come to realize that they are on the same side. They come to respect each other deeply but disagree with the methods to effect real change. Does it sound familiar?
After Sam returns the shield Captain Rogers gave him- the United States government gives it to an army hero bent on being even better than the original Captain America. Captain John Walker, the new Captain America is the embodiment of the soldier betrayed by its government (a common trope among anti-government and white-nationalist militias).
He also represents white anxieties in an increasingly multicultural United States. Eventually, John Walker- who has taken the last super soldier serum, brutally executes one of Karli’s super soldier (another Brown person) while horrified civilians filmed the execution in what can be compared to the all-too-common execution of Black and Brown people by white police officers.
Sam and the Winter Soldier fight him. Sam finally subdues Walker and takes Captain America’s shield. This is when he decides to visit Isaiah Bradley, an African American Korean War veteran and super soldier who was imprisoned and experimented on for thirty years. Bradley tells him that no Black man can be Captain America and no self-respecting African American should want to be it either.
He mentions how he had admired the famous WWII Tuskegee Airmen, in particular the fighter squadron known as the Red Tails, and how he wanted to follow on their footsteps and fight for America and for Black communities just to be betrayed, experimented on, and finally be incarcerated for thirty years.
And on top of that- he never existed. This exchange exposes the United States well documents abuse of and experimentation on communities of color. It also highlights how these communities have been presented as people without history- erased from the annals of history.
Sam leaves conflicted. Can he still fight for the country he loves but that doesn’t fully accept him? A country that criminalizes him when he is not in uniform? Strike that, a country that criminalizes him even while in uniform. Even when representing “America,” Black and Latino (and Asian) soldiers are not immune to racism as the case of Afro-Latino Army 2nd Lt Caron Nazario, stopped while in uniform, disrespected, and pepper-sprayed by police officers in December 2020 in Virginia, painfully remind us.
Sam’s worries are not just timely, but almost universal and they resonate with Black and Latino, immigrant, women and Gay and Lesbian service members who have been disrespected and have seen their rights violated in and out of uniform.
So the question remains, can Sam pick up that American symbol and continue to be himself? Can he pick up the shield without betraying his community? Can he carry the shield that symbolizes a country that has enslaved, oppressed, and abused his community and many others? Never mind being Captain America, can he truly be accepted as a person in the country he loves? He is answering that question for all of us.
And his answer is: “Yes, we can!”. And if you are thinking about a “reset” after the Blip- well, this is a reset to put us back in course after four years of Trump’s openly xenophobic, bigoted and white supremacist regime.
Wearing a new Captain America uniform and flight suit (courtesy of his pal, the Winter Soldier and the best Wakanda scientists), Sam flies to New York to stop Karli’s attack on the U.N. building. Karli is ready to give up her life to stop the mass deportation of millions of peoples. Long story short, Karli is killed by a villain posing as one of the good guys. After saving the day, Sam carries her body in a solemn moment.
And this is when the former Falcon, now fully embodying Captain America- faces the most dangerous situation in these series.
This is the moment when he confronts the white power embedded in our government and institutions. The same white power turned into supremacy and privilege that assaults and kills Black and Brown people with impunity in the United States and worldwide.
And he confronted it like Black Americans do; presumed ignorant, incompetent, wrong, guilty- having to continuously show he is not threatening anyone, that he is more educated, polite, and decent than anyone around. In the process, he proved that he is exceptional- and that he must be just to have a place in average white America.
He does all that with a police department truck as background and with police car lights illuminating the scene. He does that in the most frightening environment for Black people in America. This is the most symbolic moment of the whole series- in full solidarity with Black Lives Matter and with our Latino and immigrant population.
He challenges white power- and denounces all the abuses visited upon his community and others, he emphasizes how they are the ones who built this country just to be ignored, persecuted erased, criminalized and yet “here I’m still standing”. Here we are still standing.
This moment could’ve not been better written or be more symbolic. Aren’t heroes supposed to fight for justice and equality for all and to embody the best of our societies? This is what Sam does as the new Captain America. He will not carry the symbol of old “America” but that of a new America. One in which he is not less when not in uniform, one in which he doesn’t have to be exceptional to be respected. Heck, Sam didn’t even take the super soldier serum to become a superhero- he did it with raw power, training, discipline (and some cutting-edge technology).
But back to the point, by tackling immigration and racial issues as two sides of the same coin, these series denounce white supremacist and send the message that Brown and Black communities are no longer divided. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier series attempts bridge the gap white supremacists love to see growing. But in this world, there is no more falling for the pitting of Black and Brown communities and immigrants against each other.
One can only hope that the message in these series becomes mainstream and that our communities make common cause to end white supremacy, and that together, we create a better United States of America. One in which anyone can be “the Cap” and represent the best of us all- with or without a shield.
These series also remind us how important is to restore the record and recover our communities’ histories. Captain America revisits Isaiah Bradley simply as Sam. Bradley saw Sam becoming Captain America on TV. Now Sam takes him to the National Museum where Bradley’s heroism and the injustices he faced are in full display. I’m a historian, so this scene made my day. Bradley is a Korean War veteran who grew up admiring the Tuskegee Airmen and the series also make references to the Nisei. They all have in common the discrimination and racism they faced, and still, just like Sam, they did their duty and defended a country that didn’t love them back and even criminalized their communities. For this reason, these units received the Congressional Gold Medal. And they are not the only ones. The Puerto Rican soldiers of the 65th Infantry, received it too. They all fought for a better version of “America”.
The medal recognizes the valor and sacrifice of units like the African-American marines and aviators whose bravery in combat, at a time when lynching was common and racial segregation the norm, disproved the myths of racial inferiority and unfitness for military service; it recognizes the courage of Navajo code talkers, who at a time when their language was prohibited in schools, used it for communications in the battlefield saving countless American lives; or the pride of Japanese-American soldiers who volunteered to join the army and requested combat duty while their families were kept in internment camps. The Puerto Rican soldiers known as the Borinqueneers made a similar contribution. The men of the 65th were willing to pay the ultimate price at a time when Puerto Ricans were openly labeled in the press, in academic circles, and by elected officials, as “a problem” to be dealt with.
All these men and women who have worn the uniform, even after experiencing the harshest forms of discrimination and racism, understand what the new Cap’s America stands for. And like Sam, they stood up for their country, their communities, and for justice and equality. They are still sanding.