On Captain America and racism

First things first: I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as I can, and really, Episode 5 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is not really an episode that can be spoiled, but something minor might slip through here and there if you haven’t seen the episode yet.

So, the whole thing about this show is this extended meditation– and, to put it out there, it’s a process I’ve very much enjoyed– on what the idea of Captain America is, and on what America itself is, and what it means when America’s so-called ideals don’t match up with America’s actions. We’ve been repeatedly reminded that the super-soldier serum makes you more of what you already were, and we’ve had the moral exemplar of Steve Rogers hovering over the entire show as someone everyone on the show is trying to live up to. Left unclear is whether Rogers is actually still alive; Sam and Bucky have both used the word “gone” for him several times, and everyone else thinks he’s dead, but I don’t know exactly what the situation is there.

They’ve done a good job of making John Walker a character who people can empathize with to some degree without making him sympathetic, I think, and it’s clear and getting clearer by the moment that he’s not up to the job of Captain America. But is anyone? Is Sam, who Steve Rogers actually gave the shield to, worthy of it? Is Bucky, for that matter, who doesn’t seem to want the job but also seems more than anyone else in the story to need there to be someone out there called Captain America? (Bucky, by the way, has served as Cap in the comics. So has Sam.)

And then there’s this specter of racism that’s hung over the entire show. Early on, Sam and his sister Sarah are denied a loan by a bank officer. He blames it on the effects of the Blip, and of course they leave that frisson of deniability in there, but you wonder. There’s Isaiah Bradley, a Black man experimented on in the process of developing the super soldier serum and later locked in jail and forgotten. Walker literally tells Sam to his face that America will never accept a Black Captain America– and, hell, judging from the reaction when he was Cap in the comics, America had a lot of trouble with a comic book about a Black Captain America. And then there’s Walker himself, a less-than-great white man propped up by a Black wife and a Black best friend, introduced to a screaming crowd by a Black marching band, and who only has the shield in the first place because a Black man gave it up and the government stole it.

All this is leading into me wondering why the hell Bucky and Steve aren’t big racists.

Now, okay, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: these versions of those characters can’t be racists, and that’s why they aren’t. Marvel needed Chris Evans’ Captain America to be all-caps-and-italics CAPTAIN AMERICA, and while Bucky is allowed his dark side, what with the decades of murdering, we still need him to be sympathetic and a hero. Both Rogers’ and Barnes’ man-out-of-time thing is played mostly for laughs and nothing else; Cap doesn’t understand pop culture references and doesn’t like to swear, and Barnes read Lord of the Rings when it first came out, because he’s a hundred and nine damn years old. So we’re just going to choose to ignore certain aspects of being a white man in 1945 who suddenly wakes up in 2015 (or whatever year Captain America: The First Avenger was set in) and is immediately confronted with a Black man in a position of enormous power and has absolutely no questions about it. Bucky Barnes grew up white in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s but he has a date with a Japanese girl in the first episode and has immediate chemistry with Sam’s sister in the fifth, and never once treats his Black Best Friend ™ with a drop of paternalism or condescension or anything.

Well, okay, he won’t move his seat up, but I don’t think that counts. And maybe you’re wondering Wait, Luther, are you seriously saying that every white person in the 1940s was a racist? To which my answer is, yes, I absolutely am saying that, at least by modern-day standards. And Steve and Bucky haven’t had eighty years of changing society to drag them along, they got plucked out of one timeline and dropped into another with no time to adjust in between.

But, to be clear: I don’t actually want Bucky accidentally dropping the n-word about Sam’s sister and having an episode where he apologizes. I don’t want Steve Rogers calling the Black Widow “Toots,” or blowing the Scarlet Witch shit for being Jewish, assuming she actually is Jewish in the MCU, which is sort of up for debate.

But it would be damned interesting to see a sort of What If? or Elseworlds-type series where Cap gets brought back by the type of person who is always holding up the forties and fifties as some sort of American Golden Age, something we should try to get back to, only to find out that the guy who was such a big hero in World War II is a massive asshole by anything approaching modern standards. The Ultimates universe leaned into this a little harder than the regular Marvel universe ever has; their Cap was jingoistic and a sexist and a whole lot of other things, but it was mostly played for comedy and/or shock value; what I’m looking for here tilts closer into villainy, and I want to see a story where America’s reaction to Captain America is part of the story. They got into that a little bit when Sam Wilson became Cap in the comics, now let’s see what happens when Steve Rogers himself is held up as this great guy and turns out not to be. What if Cap came back to modern-day America and rejected it? What if America rejected him, and said this is not who we want to be?

It’s been fun to think about, at least.


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Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.