Black History Month: Captain America, Diversity, and Politics

The lower right corner has some ominous shadows of figures they are going to jump down on and beat up.

The lower right corner has some ominous shadows of figures they are going to jump down on and beat up.

It is once again Black History Month, and as usual, I’m going to take some time to focus on the presentation of African Americans in American comics. I’m especially conscious of the impact that pop culture representation has on young people in this particular year. Unlike the past seventeen years of my educational career, the school where I teach now has a tiny percentage of African American students. Out of close to two hundred students on my schedule, I only have two African American students at this time…the rest of my schedule being comprised of Latino students.

I did have a total of five at one point…sadly one of those young people made a decision that got the attention of the Judicial System, and the other two left our school because they felt that there was a sort of “institutionalized racism” at the venue. I appreciated that they felt they could say that to me, and that they had my support…those two young men were good students, and I was sorry to see them go. I was even sorrier to hear their opinion of what they felt the school experience was like.

One of those young gentlemen always made a point to engage me in conversations about comics after class, and he was especially concerned about the portrayal of African Americans in comics today. As a result…I’m a bit more conscious of the importance of the medium, and also…a bit more interested in doing a better job on my Black History Month posts.

Today’s art is obviously the current Captain America, who used to be the Falcon, over at Marvel Comics. Considering that Captain America is an A-list, blockbuster film franchise, heavy merchandise character, having a black man in the role is a massive step forward for marvel in terms of diversity. More importantly, he is a character that other superheroes would give credit to on his own merit…the Falcon was Cap’s partner for years, an Avenger in his own right, and an incredibly seasoned superhero. All in all, it was a choice that wasn’t just a diversity choice…it made narrative sense, and was a logical arc for the character, as well as the comics.

Additionally, the book has been pretty well written as well.

I touched on the point I wanted to make in the text of this post during the last week. The Falcon was an excellent superhero in his own right. If you gave me a Falcon series, I would pick it up, and I have a little chibi pin of the Falcon, in his traditional uniform, on my jacket. I don’t know how comfortable I am with the implied message: A successful African American superhero assumes the identity of a successful White Male superhero…and it’s a promotion.

See that? That right there? That’s uncomfortable, and what I think comics need to get past. It’s unintentional, sure…if we are going to have “legacy superheroes,” given the marketplace for decades, the “legacies” are all inherited from straight white males. If you want to have diversity in the established “A-list”, you will always be in the uncomfortable position that I just spoke about. It’s been done before, with Iron Man and Green Lantern, notably. It’s not necessarily a Bad Thing….but it’s a thing we should be past creatively.

Milestone Comics was about the point that I’m trying to make. Milestone gave me Icon…a Superman-like hero who didn’t need to get his title, his name, or his identity from anyone other than his creators, and his own context. Creatively, that was both something new for the readers…a new character, and new stories…but also, it didn’t have the awkward business of inheriting a previously white identity. We got Static Shock from that…by any measure, good comics, and a solid animated series.

Last week I spoke about whether it was really diversity if “diverse” characters had to share a name or super identity with the previous white male owners. In this case, right now…Sam Wilson is the only Captain America, but with seventy odd years of a white guy in that suit, it still seems…off. Like I would have preferred they gave him the shield and the job, but called him something new, like “The Eagle.” Less undermining to his own identity, his own standing as an individual in comics.

Again…a whole lot of these ideas came from discussions about the topic with my student, after class. I found his insights to be unique, and more importantly, reflective of his own day to day experience of trying to determine his own identity through his achievements. I felt like those discussions would make a good start to Black History Month here at Adequacy…less as a book report about the history of African American characters in comics (although we will do some of that) and more a “position piece.”

I wanted to start the month with the Falcon because he will be appearing in the upcoming Captain America film…but also because , the character is mainstream comics’ first African-American superhero. He was created by writer-editor Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan, and introduced in Captain America No.117 (Sept. 1969). Although the Black Panther’s first appearance pre-dates this…the Panther is a native of Africa, and not an American at all. So the Falcon is a pretty big deal in comics without the Captain America suit…which is pretty important to remember.

I think they might need more superheroes.

I think they might need more superheroes.

As we know…I’m a huge supporter of Free Speech. Heck, it’s Free Speech that lets me have this little corner of the internet called Tales of Adequacy. That said…every time I see Donald Trump in the news, he says something that scares the living @#$% out of me. It scares me even more that he seems to have given voice to a really mean spirited contingent of supporters who seem to agree with a lot of his angry, often racist rhetoric. The idea that he is the Republican front runner is counter intuitive to me.

It struck me, as I experimented with digital lettering for this piece, that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign, such as it is, misses the things that are actually good about the nation. It’s not a perfect place, that’s for sure. But…I don’t believe that Trump actually thinks about Muslims any particularly deep fashion; I think he likes and respects the members any group exactly as much as they have money and a willingness to do business with him. So if you’re a Saudi prince, he’ll like you just fine and be happy to cut you all the breaks you want. Otherwise, you’re an abstraction that he can use to motivate another abstract group, that is, likely GOP primary voters, who, to be clear, I suspect he thinks about and respects as much and in the same fashion as the previously mentioned Muslims — for what they can do for Trump, and only exactly that much.

I think that’s how he feels about pretty much any group, or any set of people. Which is the exact opposite of the kind of dialogue that is beginning in the United States, which could finally make good on the promises in the mythology of America. Things like “liberty and justice for all,” you know?

Which is why…although my student had a very solid point, that an African American superhero is not really getting a promotion by being able to assume the identity of an established white hero…I think we need a Black Captain America right now. When I hear that kind of rhetoric from people like Donald Trump…being able to look at the cover of a comic book and see the personified symbol of the United States be a person of color, an African American…its a massive statement about the kind of progress we have made as a people, that we can’t go back on.

I’m going to get off of my soapbox now, with a final thought. Pretty much all of the ideas I’ve been working through here, stream of consciousness style, were from discussions with a young gentleman in my classes. A Tenth Grader. If a few young people, just a few, are giving matters like this heavy thought…I think the world might just be okay a bit longer.

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