Nancy Solomon: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Nancy Solomon. In the recent Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, actor Anthony Mackie plays Sam Wilson, better known by his superhero alias, Falcon. He picks up the mantle, or rather shield, of Captain America.
Speaker 1: I'm a Black man carrying the Stars and Stripes. What don't I understand? Every time I pick this thing up, I know there are millions of people out there who are going to hate me for it.
Nancy: Mackie's Captain America is part of a new wave of Black superheroes on the big and small screen, as well as splashed on the pages of comic books in recent years, from Marvel’s 2018 blockbuster Black Panther-
Black Panther: Wakanda forever. [crowd cheering]
Nancy: - to HBO’s critically-acclaimed Watchmen-
Speaker 1: I wear the mask to protect myself.
Nancy: - to Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy.
Speaker 2: I heard a rumor that you did it in one take. I heard a rumor [inaudible 00:01:04]
Nancy: For more on this, we're joined by Adilifu Nama, a professor of African-American Studies at Loyola Marymount University and author of Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. Adilifu, great to have you with us.
Adilifu Nama: It's good to hear your voice and it's good to be heard.
Nancy: Let's start with the introduction of the new Captain America in the recent The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. That's pretty significant to now have a Black man wielding the iconic Star-Spangled shield, right?
Adilifu: Certainly. I think it's iconic as well as relevant. It's relevant in terms of the moment that we as a nation are grappling with in terms of our own identity, and mission, and moral grounding. There's a way in which these broad pressing issues are being played out in a very interesting way with the symbolic representation of these issues by The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Marvel Series.
Nancy: People that watch the new series know that Anthony Mackie's character, Sam Wilson, had a complicated journey in becoming Captain America. Tell us about that. What was the source of the inner conflict and what does that represent?
Adilifu: Well, in many ways I think we have to make a distinction between the television series and the comic book narrative in terms of its origin story. There is a distinction in terms of the way in which Sam Wilson becomes Falcon. But in terms of the ongoing discussion around American patriotism, the ongoing discussion around the place of race in that discussion, is something that the Captain America and Falcon comic book series was doing decades, in fact, prior to what we are witnessing with the television series.
Nancy: Can you tell us a little bit about what that was, the conflict and how he goes through this transformation?
Adilifu: In terms of the series, that tension has primarily been around Sam asserting his identity as a Black man. That was the case with the actual comic book series. It's very interesting for me as a fan of comics, and certainly as a cultural critic, to see this type of racial dialogue get the type of attention that is usually associated with some type of racial movement or racial scholarship. Now we're starting to see the best of what comics and comic narrative can bring to our archive of like popular understanding and discussion of these broad issues, that we get to see this through the prism of a comic book. I think in that way, Sam Wilson's taking on, as you said, the shield of Captain America, becomes a part of a broader debate about what is the role and place of Black Folk in American society?
Nancy: Captain America is part of a wave, as we're talking about, of new Black superheroes and movies, TV shows, comic books. Let's talk about some of the other notable characters. Did this start with the Black Panther or does it predate that as well?
Adilifu: Well, I think really, if you want to talk about superheroes, I think we can really talk about John [unintelligible 00:05:11] We can go to Black, the steel-driving man. There's Black folklore that is always, we can find superheroes within a Black cultural context. I don't want to assign the origin story of the Black superhero to one particular decade, one particular comic book company.
Having said that, Marvel and DC are probably, these are the mainstream iterations in which Black folk take on the mantle of superheroes. That comes about in the '60s, which is not really surprising because the '60s is the backdrop of the civil rights and Black Power movement. There's an assertion of Black people for their space, and an assertion of their identity as not just subservient, not just oppressed, or marginalized. That political assertion, I would argue, translates into a reimagining of what Blackness is and can be.
It's not surprising then, that we see a reimagining of Blackness beyond [unintelligible 00:06:24] We see a reimagining of Blackness beyond sharecroppers and criminals. We see a reimagining of Blackness as Black folk with superpowers and abilities. I would argue that this is not possible in 1920s America. This is not possible in 1940s America, because for the superhero aesthetic to work for Black folk in that timeframe, there's no telling what might come out in the 1920s version of this. We might have a watermelon man. There's a way in which the Black, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, the Black Freedom Movement in total, has the impact on how we imagined Blackness going into the late 1960s and early '70s, where we see even a new crop of Black superheroes emerging.
Nancy: It's interesting, the parallels between the 1960s civil rights movement and the moment that we're in now. That's a very interesting parallel. One of the most striking things about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the inclusion of the character Isaiah Bradley. He's one of several Black men who were experimented on as part of the US's super-soldier program during World War II. What do you make of pop culture rooting characters and storylines in history, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in this case? That is a real thing, so it's interesting that this show is referencing not fantasy, but actual fact.
Adilifu: Yes, it can get you a little tongue-tied sometimes in terms of all the issues that are just so folded in and compounded with that figure of Isaiah Bradley. I would argue, yes, it's making reference to the Tuskegee experiment, in terms of the way in which syphilis was actually allowed to continue and attack these Black, I guess, guinea pigs without their knowledge. We see a similar framework or framing with the Isaiah Bradley character.
The Isaiah Bradley character, I would argue, we don't want to just reduce him to that particular episode of savage experimentation, but Isaiah Bradley is a metaphor for the inclusion and exclusion of Blackness in terms of contributing to the society and the way in which the cost of our quest to be a part of the society on equal terms, there is a cost.
This cost is portrayed and presented by Isaiah Bradley. He becomes a metaphor for the cost of enslavement, becomes a metaphor for the cost of Jim Crow, he becomes a metaphor for the cost of trying to create space for more equitable policing in our community. There's a cost, and he is not only symbolizing that, but he expresses it in terms of, "I served this country and yet this country has not served me." That's a very powerful point of examination for a comic book, and that's what makes it interesting. That dynamic.
Nancy: Yes, and it's been such a familiar trope in superhero comics, the lab experiment gone wrong. To me, it's so striking that here you have an instance where this is really what happened and it's referencing real history and it makes it, it's so much more believable then.
Adilifu: Let's jump into some of the heart of this, and this is, I think, the surprising element of why comics have become, or Marvel and DC, but particularly the Marvel platforms have become, they have resonated so much at this time, because these comic book theories and iterations allows the opportunity now to talk about very tender and sensitive issues in a way that allows us to engage in a more provocative debate. The Falcon Winter soldier series is particularly attuned to this. I would have to maybe attribute that to the inclusion of Black folk in the writing room, the inclusion of Black folk in the process, to make sure that the narrative notes and issues concerning race are articulated with the type of maturity that it deserves.
I think that's in many ways why we come to the Isaiah Bradley character, because he in this context is becoming a type of challenge, not only to Sam Wilson, not only to the Falcon, but a challenge to our own conception of what a superhero is, and has to be cognizant of, as an African-American. I look forward to seeing that discussion expand in terms of what does it mean for a woman to be a superhero, and what type of issues resonate within that and reflection that we see in terms of those dynamics.
I turned to a different corner for a moment, but I'll circle back. When we talk about Isaiah Bradley, one of the things that I thought was so interesting was two comments. One, he makes a statement about, "No self-respecting--" I'm paraphrasing. "No self-respecting Black man would ever want to wear or be Captain America." Right? I mean, that was a bombshell. Then you get Sam Wilson at one point, the Falcon, coming back and say, "Hey, listen--" I mean this is a really provocative statement. He says, "We built this country." Right? Then from there, why would I be denied to fight for it?
There's an interesting coupling of blackness in terms of the foundation for this, for the construction of a society, but also this assertion of participation is in fact not only acceptable, but it's actually commendable, if you have actually spent your time trying to make the society be the type of society that I guess a Captain America could actually operate in and not feel funny about wearing those stars and stripes.
Nancy: Adilifu Nama is a professor of African-American studies at Loyola Marymount University and he's written several books on the intersection of pop culture and race. Adilifu, thanks so much for joining us.
Adilifu: Thank you for the invitation and have a good day.
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