Put a dollar to your ear, you can hear the moaning of a slave
America the great was built off the labor that they gave–Sho Baraka “Maybe Both, 1865”
Over the past few weeks, I have been reading through various story arcs and volumes in the Marvel Universe. Specifically, I am reading Christopher Priest’s Black Panther (1998-2003), Mike Benson’s Luke Cage: Noir (2009), and Robert Morales’ Truth: Red, White, and Black (2003). In the next couple of posts, I want to examine some aspects of these texts that stood out to me as I read them, and I want to explore them within the broader context of ideas I have been thinking about recently surrounding the construction of myth and the importance of having one’s voice heard.
Morales’ Truth: Red, White, and Black re-imagines Captain America’s origin story through its focus on testing conducted by the United States government on African American soldiers in 1942 to see if the super-serum the government would later inject into Steve Rogers would have any side effects. (The story pulls from the Tuskegee Experiments the government conducted in the 1930s-1970s where they injected African Americans with syphilis to see how it progresses.) In this way, the seven-issue series, as Adilifu Nama notes, “admonished the reader to incorporate the experiences and histories of black folk that paint a different picture of the cost and quest for freedom and democracy in America.” Sadly, Truth‘s goals did not differ much from the same goals and thoughts laid out by David Walker in 1829 and countless others leading up to the 2003 appearance of the series.
Walt Whitman, in Democratic Vistas (1871), uses the metaphor of ships, loaded down with “[a]ll the best experience of humanity, folded, saved, freighted to us here,” arriving from the past to our present moment with names such as “Old and New Testament, Homer, Eschylus, Plato, Juvenal, &c.” All of these stories affect us; they come “to us to illumine our own selfhood.” We look to these stories to learn about ourselves, and what we learn about ourselves form our identities. Whitman continues by arguing that rather than look to European texts, we need to mine America for inspiration for a distinctly American literature.
I talk about Whitman here to point out the ways that the stories we convey to one another, the ones we read in literature classes, the ones we privilege over others, the ones that get published, all inform how we construct our identities. In the case of Captain America, that identity gets transmitted as white. Along with Steve Rogers’ whiteness, we must also consider his outfit–a red, white, and blue uniform with a huge star on his chest and shield. The combination of the patriotic imagery with Rogers’ whiteness place whiteness at the front of American identity when he initially appeared in World War II. This construction was nothing new. We need only look back at Thomas Jefferson and J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur to see how European whiteness gets linked to American identity.
What this equation leaves out, though, are the voices, “experiences and history of black people,” Asian Americans, Native Americans, and countless others who have made America what is today. Morales presents those who paved the way for Rogers to become Captain America. Without Isaiah Bradley, Maurice Canfield, Dallas Huxley, Luke Evans, and countless others, Steve Rogers would never become Captain America. Bradley, the only man to ultimately survive the experiments, takes on a mission because Captain America is fighting in the Pacific. The mission leads Bradley to a concentration camp, and he gets captured by the German army. Presumed dead, the series traces Captain America’s search for the truth of Bradley’s life in the final two issues. It turns out Bradley survived.
To get to the truth, Captain America speaks with Lt. Phillip Merritt, in prison in the present, about what exactly happened to Bradley. The racist Merritt looks up to Captain America, and during the interrogation, there are multiple comics strewn on the table in front of him. When Captain America leaves, a feeble, grotesque Merritt holds up an image of Captain America and asks, “Think you could sign this before you go?” Captain America leaves, still seeking answers.
Merritt knew about the experiments conducted on Bradley and the other soldiers; however, he only looks up to Captain America. He views Bradley, Canfield, Huxley, Evans, and the others as less than himself because of their skin color. In the cell, he relates pieces of Bradley’s story, but he does not acknowledge the role that Bradley played in leading to Steve Rogers becoming Captain America. Rather, he holds Captain America up as a representation of America, not Bradley. Captain America, in his search for what actually happened to Bradley, serves as a way to counter Merritt’s positioning of Captain America as the sole image of the nation. Through his search, Morales calls upon us as readers to think about the people whose voices remain silent and how they are America.
As stated earlier, seeking the unheard voices from the past is nothing new. In his Appeal, David Walker argued for citizenship for Blacks and that the nation should not ignore the ways that Blacks, and I would add others, have “enriched” our country .
Some perhaps may deny, by saying, that they never thought or said that we were not men. But do not actions speak louder than words?–have they not made provisions for the Greeks, and Irish? Nations who have never done the least thing for them, while we, who have enriched their country with our blood and tears–have dug up gold and silver for them and their children, from generation to generation, and are in more miseries than any other people under heaven, are not seen, but by comparatively, a handful of the American people?
In the twentieth century, Jean Toomer in Cane sought to preserve, in some way, the culture of Southern Blacks that he saw as disappearing. Ernest J. Gaines, after reading countless American and European authors, sought to write works that brought the voices of the people he knew in South Louisiana to the world because he did not see them represented in any of the works he read. Alice Walker sought to revive the voice of Zora Neale Hurston, a voice all but silenced over the years. Toni Morrison sought to bring the voice of Margaret Garner to the public through Beloved. The list could go on and on.
The point here is that there are voices and stories we need to hear. The ships that come down to us through the ages are the ones that others have deemed worthy of transmission for some reason. Typically, these reasons adhere to the ideas and beliefs of those who transmit the works to us, and their connections to the works serve to maintain their position at the top of the social ladder. Merritt revers Captain America because he is white and American. This combination adheres to his beliefs because he feels superior to Bradley and the others Black soldiers.
Ultimately, Captain America finds Bradley and visits him at his home. Before he sees Bradley, he speaks with Stephanie, Bradley’s wife, about their life after the war. He finds out the the serum has caused Bradley to regress and become like a child and that the government denies any knowledge about the experiments, thus denying the Bradleys any financial support. (The first time we see Stephanie, she wears burka. This is a discussion that I do not have time to delve into today, but it is one worth exploring further because her interaction with Captain America brings up discussions of America’s War on Terrorism after 9/11.) Stephanie tells Captain America about how the government brought Isaiah back from behind enemy lines, but immediately after they rescued him, they arrested him because he “stole” the Captain America uniform. The arrest, for taking and donning the uniform, says that Isaiah is not an American because of the color of his skin.
Captain America rectifies this injustice by bringing the tattered uniform with him when he meets Isiah. The concluding image is of Steve Rogers and Isaiah Bradley wearing their respective Captain America uniforms, pointing out the fact that both are American in the same way that Walker, Toomer, Gaines, Walker, Morrison, and more did within their own work. Morales brings us a story, albeit fictional, that gives voice to those who history has silenced.
There are so many directions this discussion could take, but there is not enough space here to take these paths. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.