As I am writing this the ashes are smoldering in Ferguson, Missouri. In truth, the ashes have been smoldering for centuries, fanned into flames time and again, usually by callous violence which, when layered on top of bigotry and hatred, is combustible. The nation began in violence and violence has begat violence ever since.
The flammable American psyche has always tended toward moral certainty, has always believed in the fictional line that divides good and evil and in the illusory wall between black and white, when in truth the nation’s lived morality is always murky, when in truth America has always been colored in shades of red and brown and black and tan.
When Captain America was born, he wore America’s colors—the red, white and blue colors of the flag—but in December, 1940, when he broke through an iron-barred window, deflected bullets fired from the guns of SS soldiers, and punched Adolf Hitler square in the jaw, he was lily white underneath the costume and mask.
The superhero premiered a full year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced America’s hand and sent the nation headlong into war. His creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both young Jewish men from New York, would themselves join the fight against Hitler in the coming years: Simon joined the Coast Guard and patrolled the Atlantic coast; Kirby joined the Army and, like Captain America, took his battle all the way to Germany. Their fight began, however, with pulp paper, four colors and Captain America.
On the surface Steve Rogers looked exactly like the Aryan godlings that haunted the fevered dreams of the Nazis. Blue eyes. Yellow hair. But Steve Rogers was not the product of pure breeding, not an example of the strength and power of the white race. Indeed, he was anything but. Steve Rogers was rejected by the Army as unfit for duty; Steve Rogers was frail and weak. His strength came, not from his racial heritage but from ingenuity and intelligence, from scientific achievement. His creator, Professor Reinstein, who died at the hands of Nazi saboteurs, was perhaps the real hero of the piece. Reinstein, of course, was a comicbook version of the real world German Jewish scientist Albert Einstein, whose scientific genius would contribute to the war effort in a decidedly different fashion. It was Reinstein, the Jewish scientist, who made Steve Rogers powerful and strong, who created Captain America. In some ways, then, the idea of Captain America was a perfect counterpoint to Hitler’s crazed obsession with eugenics and the master race. There was nothing about the color of Steve Rogers’ skin that made him Captain America.
Of course, Captain America was not the only comicbook superhero to challenge the assumptions of Nazi philosophy. Superman had arrived on the scene almost two years before Captain America, and though he joined the war effort later and with less gusto than Cap, Superman posed his own challenge to Nazi mythology. This dark and curly haired hero with the decidedly Jewish name was at heart an immigrant to American shores, an immigrant who fled the destruction of his home world in the way that millions were fleeing before the Nazi threat. Siegel’s and Shuster’s Superman was a far cry from the Nazi vision of the Nietzschean Superman, who would overcome the morality of the slave races and lead his nation to the purer morality of the master race. Superman, at least in those early days, was more Moses than übermensch.
Like Captain America, however, Superman’s racial challenge to Nazi philosophy was subtle. He may have been secretly Semitic, but on the surface, at least, he could certainly pass as white. It would be a long time before superheroes colored like the human race would take the scene. Fortunately, real men and women don’t wait on times to change, don’t wait on revisions to editorial policy. In the real world, heroes come in all the colors of humanity.
Before Captain America and before Superman there was Jesse Owens. Four years before Cap punched Hitler in the jaw, Jesse Owens did even more. He broke records, shattered barriers, set the Aryan myth back a thousand years. He was faster than a speeding bullet. Faster than a flying shield.
Owens was born in 1913 in Oakville, Alabama. In 1913, the Tennessee River had not yet been dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1913, its waters ran free. For Owens to do that he had to move out of the Heart of Dixie and to Cleveland, Ohio. He ran from there straight to Berlin. He was the Buckeye Bullet. He was the fastest man alive. He was Superman. He was Captain America. All brown skinned and fast as lightning. Punching Hitler in the jaw.
There were others who followed the Buckeye Bullet to rise up from the crushing prejudice of Alabama’s own version of Hitler’s obscene racist Weltanschauung to become real American heroes. Rosa Parks stood up against tyranny by refusing to stand. Forty-nine years ago this month she did the work of Captain America, of leading the nation, not where it wanted to go but where it needed to go. Soon thereafter, Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired by Rosa Parks’ courage, took up the mantle, put on the mask, hefted the shield. He was not the hero we deserved. He was the hero we needed. He was Captain America when he stood before Lincoln’s memorial and taught us what it meant to dream. He was Captain America when he gave his life on Mulberry Street in the great Bluff City just blocks from Beale Street where white and black made music that was blue.
Sooner or later comicbook heroes began catching up with reality, began to look more like the heroes of the real world. They still have an incredible way to go and much of the progress was made decades ago. But progress was made.
Marvel, of course, led the way. Black Panther was the first black superhero to be published by the big two companies. He appeared in Marvel’s flagship comic The Fantastic Four in July of 1966, a co-creation of the astounding Stan Lee and Jack Kirby partnership. Others slowly followed, most notably the Falcon in 1969, a hero in this case created by Lee and the great and under-appreciated Gene Colan.
While the Black Panther was an African prince from the futuristic nation of Wakanda, Sam Wilson, the Falcon, was an American hero, making him, I suppose, the first mainstream African-American superhero. Right from the start he was teamed with Captain America. It was a fitting partnership, this relic of American idealism—dressed in the colors of World War II patriotism—teamed with this new thing that was really as old as the republic, this new American hero who challenged the status quo just by the fact of his existence, just because of the shades of color that went between the lines of Colan’s pencils.
But the Falcon was always black in more ways than the color of his skin. Some writers captured this better than others. In the hands of Jack Kirby during his triumphal return to Captain America in the 70’s, the Falcon was all attitude and pride. He challenged Cap at every turn, questioned his motives, questioned his understanding of what it meant to be an American, a real American—not of colors red, white and blue but of colors red, white, black and brown. Later, when he was recruited for the Avengers, the Falcon bristled at the thought that he might have been chosen only because of his blackness.
And now, in his most recent tale, he is the child of a preacher man, made an orphan by the ugly, blood splattering violence of a gun. Rick Remender and Stuart Immonen remind us of these facts in their story of Sam Wilson, and in reminding us of these facts they remind us of his blackness and of his Americanness. After all, America is the land of God and guns, Guns and gods, so on, and so on, and so on, forever and ever, Amen. The crack of gunfire echoes through America’s hills and valleys right along with the peal of church bells.
Sam Wilson, formerly known as the Falcon, stars in Marvel’s All New Captain America. Steve Rogers has grown old and tired. It is Sam Wilson’s turn to wear the stars and stripes, to carry the shield. And just like that, Captain America is black. As much as I love Steve Rogers as the First Avenger, I must confess that Captain America now looks more like America than he ever has before.
Not that it’s groundbreaking, not that it’s leading the way, this marketing gimmick that no one thinks will last. America twice elected Barack Obama. Black men and women, black heroes, serve in the military, battle fires and falling buildings, patrol the streets, teach the children, heal the sick, preach the gospel. Heroes come in all the colors of humanity. They always have. Comicbook superheroes are always playing catch up to the real thing.
But still it is good to see this Captain America. Wings at the ready. Shield at his side. Red, white, blue and black. Finally.
And Ferguson smolders. And the flames have spread, are spreading, around the world.
And it is damned hard to keep it straight: who the heroes are, who the villains; who is setting the fires and who is firing the shots. Not everyone in uniform is a bad guy, not everyone who walks behind a shield. Not everyone in the crowd is a good guy. Good and bad get all mixed together, like black and white. It is hard to tell them apart.
But sometimes there is clarity, because violence is not the answer. And justice must prevail. And killing in America’s streets must stop. And too many black men and boys die at the hands of white police officers. And tanks and guns have no place on Mulberry Street or Beale Street or just upriver on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri.
Captain America is black. Of course he is. Perhaps he always was.
He breaks the iron bars and shackles. He deflects the deadly bullets. He stares bullies right in the face and refuses to back down. He believes that we are all the same, under the skin, in our soft, bloody, frail, mortal guts.
I’ve seen him (and her) on my television screen. He makes me believe in America. He makes me believe in the human race. He makes me believe in our future, a future all red and brown and black and tan.
His shield is down.
His hands are raised.
He is chanting along with the crowd. Softly, then louder.
“Hands up. Don’t shoot.”
“Hands up. Don’t shoot.”