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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Anthony Mackie in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios)

What does it mean for a Black man to be Captain America?

Anthony Mackie in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios)
Graphic: Allison Corr

Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is now officially the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America. It’s a complicated legacy. As the high-flying Falcon, Wilson was Captain America’s longtime partner in the comics, even sharing the series title (Captain America And The Falcon) for most of the 1970s. But he’s not Cap’s child sidekick like Robin or Kid Flash, both of whom replaced their mentors for a period. Sam Wilson is an adult and his Falcon identity isn’t training wheels. As Macbeth said, “Why dress me in borrowed robes?”

Disney+’s The Falcon And The Winter Soldier answers this question more effectively than past comics stories have. It helps that Sam’s Cap is here to stay. He’s not a fill-in until Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) returns, and unlike Dick Grayson’s Batman or Wally West’s Flash, Sam doesn’t struggle to escape his predecessor’s shadow. That was never the point. Sam initially turns down Steve’s well-intentioned offer to take over as Captain America, but the series isn’t about whether Sam is worthy to wield the shield. There’s no doubt that he is. The question is whether he should. A white man literally draped in the United States flag might seem a little square and possibly naive, but rah-rah patriotism from a remotely self-aware Black person can feel like a bad joke.

The Falcon And The Winter Soldier head writer and show creator Malcolm Spellman (Empire) avoids this trap. In the second episode, “The Star-Spangled Man,” Sam meets Isaiah Bradley (an excellent Carl Lumbly), a Black super soldier the U.S. government cruelly abused and abandoned. In exchange for his service, Isaiah was imprisoned for decades and experimented on against his will. It’s Isaiah’s legacy, not Steve’s, that Sam must confront. The scars are still visible on Isaiah’s chest when he angrily tells Sam, “Pledge allegiance to that, my brother.”

Introduced in 2003’s Truth: Red, White & Black by the late writer Robert Morales and artist Kyle Baker, Isaiah Bradley was the first Black Captain America, decades before Sam Wilson. Morales crafted a story he considered “staggeringly depressing,” and Truth is ultimately a tragedy that starkly contrasts the patriotic America myth with the actual Black experience. Steve Rogers is the idealized symbol of the American dream. His country took a frail, sickly kid from Brooklyn and enabled him to reach his full potential. He was celebrated and honored, even after defying the government. But Isaiah Bradley is also America. He’s the “darker brother” Langston Hughes described so movingly in “I, Too.” Isaiah’s heroism was deliberately erased because the nation found it inconvenient. His story has historical roots in the infamous Tuskegee experiment, as well as the Black soldiers who served valiantly in World War II but returned to an ungrateful nation that remained actively hostile to them. In August 1944, the white owner of a small restaurant in Shreveport, Louisiana, faced no charges after he shot and wounded four Black soldiers he claimed “attempted to take over his place.”

Stan Lee reintroduced Captain America in 1964 as a man out of his time. Steve Rogers had entered suspended animation in 1944 and woke up in an America that had supposedly lost its way. Author Mark D. White argued in The Virtues Of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons On Character From A World War II Superhero that “Cap’s ‘old-fashioned’ moral code is exactly what we need to restore civility and respect in the 21st century in both our personal lives and our political debates. He is what ancient philosophers—yes, more ancient than Cap—called a ‘moral exemplar.’” But was the so-called Greatest Generation truly a more civilized and respectful one?

Steve Rogers from the comics sees newsreel footage of Nazi atrocities in Europe and is inspired to enlist, to fight this sinister threat to democracy. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve declares, “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from,” but America, especially but not exclusively in the South, was filled with racist bullies, many of them in the highest levels of government. It’s comforting to consider America as a tireless beacon of freedom, yet during the Greatest Generation, Black Americans endured state-sanctioned racial oppression. The Nazis literally took inspiration from America’s Jim Crow laws. Steve himself would’ve served in a segregated military. And we should never forget that while fighting the Nazis, the American government confined its own citizens in internment camps because of their Japanese ancestry.

Captain America isn’t an unearthed treasure from a better era. The struggle for a more just America is ongoing and never easy. Sam tells his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), “Isaiah has been to hell and back—if I was in his shoes, I’d probably feel the exact same way. But what would be the point of all the pain and sacrifice, if I wasn’t willing to stand up and keep fighting?” This moment recalls how Steve refused to stay down when faced with impossible odds. “I can do this all day,” he said (quite often). Since 1619, Black people in America have never stopped fighting for true freedom and democracy.

The MCU’s Steve Rogers represents the best of the character from the comics. One of his finest moments is not in a Captain America story at all, but an issue of Daredevil. Cap appears during the climax of Frank Miller’s “Born Again” miniseries. A smarmy general tells Steve, “We’ve always admired your commitment and your loyalty,” and our hero’s response is epic: “I’m loyal to nothing, General, except the dream.” Spellman takes Sam’s Captain America in a different but just as inspiring direction. He’s not a dreamer, but neither is he some 1980s yippee-ki-yay action hero like John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the government’s skin-deep replacement for Rogers. Walker’s another square-jawed, blond-haired, blue-eyed “ideal” with super soldier serum in his veins. Sam proudly shares none of these traits, and he achieves his greatest victory through impassioned oratory, not bloodthirsty violence.

Still traumatized by his past, Isaiah warns Sam that “they will never let a Black man be Captain America.” However, Sam never once seeks permission in the series. White men in the government don’t grant Sam the Captain America identity, as they did Walker, so they can’t take it away. Even the shield Steve gave Sam was made from vibranium “discovered” in the African nation Wakanda, whose people willingly designed Sam’s new costume.

Linking Sam’s Cap to Wakanda is an elegant move. The Black Panther is a symbol of Wakandan heritage and nationalism, but it’s also not without baggage, much like Captain America. In Ryan Coogler’s 2018 film, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) confronted the mistakes of his forefathers in a powerful scene where he angrily declares, “You were wrong!” Sam isn’t a king, but he shares T’Challa’s moral authority. He’s not content to serve as the nation’s walking propaganda. His Captain America is a living challenge to do better.

In the final moments of “One World, One People,” Sam takes Isaiah to the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian where there’s now an entire wing devoted to an overjoyed Bradley. Sam demonstrates that it’s possible to build a better future while honoring the past, no matter how painful. He’s loyal to the struggle, not just a dream.