[See an expanded version here: Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?]
Technically, in order to celebrate the first black Captain America, we’d have to resort to the sort of contortions common in the comic book universe—the time machine.
Truth: Red, White & Black was a seven-issue series in 2003 with, yes, a black Captain America , as Joshua Yehl noted when the more recent announcement of a black Captain America surfaced: “While it is notable that this will be a black Captain America, it turns out that he’s not the first. Isaiah Bradley was not only the first black Captain America, but he held the mantle even before Steve Rogers.”
But the comic book universe is also noted for acting as if the same-old-same-old is NEW!!! for decades—with reboots (and more reboots), renumbering long-standing titles, killing superheroes, having those superheroes’ sidekicks take over for the dead superheroes, and then resurrecting the superheroes.
But in 2012, Marvel rebooted Captain America (again) after recently killing off Steve Rogers, having his sidekick (Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier) take over, and then bringing Rogers back (sound familiar?), building a two-year journey to issue #25 announcing the new Captain America, as Yehl explains:
Tonight on The Colbert Report, Marvel Comics’ Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada revealed that the new Captain America is Sam Wilson aka The Falcon.
With Steve Rogers losing his super powers in the pages of his solo series written by Rick Remender, readers have been guessing who the new Captain America would be, and now we have our answer. General audiences will recognize Falcon from this summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie with Anthony Mackie playing the winged superhero.
A few aspects of this move to have a black Captain America are worth noting. First, as the announcement above shows, Marvel’s commitment to films is significantly impacting their comics.
Sam Wilson/Captain America appears to be solidly in the mainstream Marvel Universe, and Captain America as superhero comic character reaches back to 1941.
Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?
My serious comic book collecting years were mainly in the 1970s, and I was drawn always to Captain America because The Falcon was one of my favorite characters. The series featured The Falcon by name and image on each issue’s cover for most of the 1970s, in fact.
My teenaged self lurking below a few decades of the 50+ self is, then, quite excited about Sam Wilson/Captain America; however, that adolescent nerd-glee is significantly tempered by the social justice adult I have become, leaving me to ask: Should we marvel at a black Captain America?
Captain America #25 opens with Steve Rogers remembering Sam Wilson—Wilson’s warrior nature, his losing both parents (minister and community organizer) and raising a brother and sister, his resilience in the face of prejudice. Notably as well, Sam Wilson was, according to Rogers, “just a man. A man dedicated to showing what one person could accomplish after a lifetime of misfortune.”
Too often, comic book narratives remain firmly entrenched in the cliche (of course, if your audience is primarily children/teens, most anything can seem new to them, and is), but where comic book narratives have failed over about eight decades is that they mostly reflect social norms, even the biases and stereotypes (see Hugh Ryan on Wonder Woman), uncritically.
Readers in the first pages of issue #25 are led to believe (as the surrounding superheroes do) that Wilson has died heroically—and Rogers is about to pronounce Wilson a martyr. Until Wilson speaks.
The issue then turns to the aging Steve Rogers, no longer invigorated by super-soldier serum, who speaks to The Avengers in order to announce Sam Wilson/Captain America. This reboot ends with Wilson/Captain America in a hybrid uniform—red, white, and blue, Captain’s shield, and Falcon wings—shouting, “Avengers assemble!”
The All-New Captain America #1, interestingly, comes in a variant edition—all-white cardboard cover with only the title blazoned across the top. And with a somber and powerful opening page in which Sam Wilson recalls his father’s sermons and death, and his mother’s murder soon after, building to a refrain alluding the Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, the black Captain America takes flight.
I mentioned Wonder Woman above because I am now reading Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. If Wonder Woman was born out of the rise of twentieth century feminism, as Lepore details, and then the series itself in action and image contradicts those feminist ideals, what good a female superhero?
And there I am stuck about the black Captain America, built up in Captain America #25 as the rugged individual, the exceptional human (superhuman) who lifted himself up by the bootstraps (wings didn’t hurt, there) and overcame every obstacle, including racism.
And there I am haunted by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
If a black Captain America reinforces the “terrible advice” confronted by Coates, if black Captain American continues to perpetuate crass militarism and unbridled vigilante violence, I am left to ask, what good a black superhero?
 See Sean P. Connors on this series in Chapter 9 of Thomas, P. L. (ed.). (2013). Science fiction and speculative fiction: Challenging genres. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.