“America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal.”
When I was a kid I was obsessed with basketball. I grew up in the 90’s being a pretty active dude that was into rap music and at the time that world seemed to interact frequently with the NBA in a sort of symbiotic relationship with the exchange of styles and culture. One night I was watching the beginning of a game between the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves with my father and his father as well. My grandfather was a WWII veteran that stormed the beach on Normandy as a medic and later went on to be one of the most respected doctors in his city even going so far as to sit on the board for a state medical school. As we watched some of my then hero’s like Kevin Garnet and Chris Webber stand upright listening to the national anthem my grandfather said “I don’t think the black guys believe it” nonchalantly as if it was just the way of the world and had no implication. My father was quick to correct him and I don’t remember if he ever said anything like that ever again. Still it stung pretty deep. When I was young I let the things I love define me on some level, it’s what you do when your a latch key kid. I loved hip hop because it provided a road map for me to deal with my depression and I loved basketball for the sheer wonder of these men that seemed to overcome the impossible at every turn. In effect this man I had grown up looking at with the utmost respect just said “These guys you look up; they don’t give a fuck about your country” Growing up in MN this wouldn’t be the last time I heard some white guy say some racist nonsense about African Americans that in effect was telling me what I put so much into was bullshit. I knew that wasn’t true and figured it was just a by product of the Twin Cities isolation. So I booked as soon as I had the chance, first to a boarding school in the middle of nowhere and later to a catholic university in New Jersey. From there I got to make friends with people of all different backgrounds who were enlightened and also didn’t really care about race including a Filipino woman that would become my wife. We moved to a nice suburb in central NJ. It’s almost idyllic in terms of racial harmony being a working class neighborhood with people of all different classes and creeds living together which is nice considering my kids will be bi-racial. Accept when you walk about five blocks west of my property to where the street ends at a cul de sac there’s a giant confederate flag perched high above a homes back yard fence; like I said it’s almost idyllic. I think about these things when I see Marvel making Captain America a black man in the mainline continuity of their comics. I know it’s not going to make that house take down their flag and it won’t change a bunch of peoples minds that already decided on racism as a mind state. I also know that part of this is a matter of publicity and that Marvel would do well to hire more minority creators on their comics in addition to this and that the change probably won’t last. But I also think it is a very profound statement that Marvel is making and I hope that by putting a black man in such a strong symbol of patriotism it can allow people to think a little bit about what that means, allow us to consider what it means to be African American in this country, be a strong symbol for young black kids to latch onto and hopefully stop some young white kids from learning racism against African Americans where those ideals may otherwise be ingrained in them by their environment.
Sam Wilson, the man that will be taking up the title of Captain America, has been a fixture in Captain America comics for decades as he’s been the ideal partner for Steve Rogers standing side by side through any and all of his trials and tribulations over the lifespan of comic book continuity. Originally created by Stan Lee and Gene Colon he’s has been more or less a cipher for how white writers think they should write black characters. Jack Kirby did him the best as he wrote him to be a bad ass right hand man who wasn’t afraid to call out bullshit, explain the suffering of modern day poverty or chill in a hotel room and call his old lady while Steve Rogers took a bath with the door open
While it really doesn’t get any sillier then that it also speaks to how close of a bond Kirby saw between the two as even back then you had to be pretty tight with someone to take a bath with the door open while they are in the other room; that’s a brotherhood and in this case a brotherhood that looks beyond color. In writing the mostly good/occasionally great current arc of Captain America Rick Remender has channeled that spirit of Kirby’s 70’s run in a lot of ways, including the bond between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson. Remender is Hispanic himself and was already writing a comic centered around a multicultural cast of charterers in his creator owned series Deadly Class. I get the feeling that even if making Wilson Captain America was a decision brought down by editorial, his punk rock roots probably revel in the chance to piss against the contingent of American’s that will be against this purely based on the color of Same Wilson’s skin . Being one of the very few minority writers working with large scale comic publishers that also writes minority characters on a regular basis he is probably one of the more qualified writers in comics to take on that challenge. He has written some amazing work and he has already done fantastic commentary about our country in his run on Captain America and other places. That being said this is probably going to be the most important thing he has written in comics and I hope he considers the world we live as he does that.
Race in America is a tricky thing to discuss depending on what side of the issue you are looking at it from and when it comes to white and black relations it’s can also be very volatile due to a history of slavery and discrimination. We’re a country that likes to pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come even though in some ways we haven’t come very far at all. On the one hand you can look at segregation, red lining and white flight of the mid 20th century and point to the election of Barack Obama as president to show how much progress we’ve made. On the other you can look at the murder of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis and see how fucking hard it is for young black men to survive in America when it feels like anybody can murder you and then walk away from it. I’m a white man that ‘s benefited from white privilege his whole life. I can’t tell you anything else other then what I believe based on my own observations and that’s this: we are a country that is deeply racist against African Americans and we are in denial of it. We pay them less money for the same work, we enforce drug laws upon the poorest segment of their population more vigorously then any other group and then we shake our heads and wonder why they can’t get it together. We speak in code about them in public and then talk down about them in private. We’ve been trained to fear and look down upon them by a system that has made it more difficult for them then anybody else and when someone try’s to point this out to us we get defensive and point the finger somewhere else. America is a beautiful country that has provided opportunity and freedom to people of all races and creed’s and it is true that once you make it to a certain point it doesn’t matter who you are but we are also a country that is both racist and in denial of our racism. Maybe making an African American male Captain America won’t change any of that and maybe it won’t address any of that directly but by making an African American male Captain America it is making a statement about equality. It is saying that a black man has as much right to be that symbol of American exceptionalism as anybody else and when you live in a country where a large contingent of the population wants to impeach a democratically elected black president for not being “born here” and accuses him of socialism when he has been anything but, where they have let men not only walk away free after killing unarmed black children because they were a “threat” but had him sign autographs at gun shows or that imprisons black men at a rate of 1 in every 15 but also refuses to acknowledge it as anything other then business as usual; that is a strong and profound statement as comics can make. And if you’ve read all this already then it’s already done it’s job and if you read the book when Sam Wilson takes over (which you should if for no other reason then because it’s been a very good run so far) then it will continue to do so. If that sounds sad that it takes what this comic book is doing to bring up this discussion thats because it is but it doesn’t have to be this way. Because maybe a young white kid will read and identify with this Captain America and maybe when he hears somebody he admires say something racist about black Americans he will think twice because of that and in the end maybe that’s all that will really matter. Comics can do a lot of things but I can’t think of anything more important it can do besides that. It may not change the world but it could change someone that will and that means something.