A few weeks ago, I taught Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White, and Black. While I had read Truth before, and written about it some, teaching it opened up new ways for me to approach the text. In the blog post I wrote about Truth two years ago, I focused on the ways that Morales and Baker “give voice to those whose history has silenced.” I still think this is true; however, I find the shift in issues #6 and #7 problematic because the focus moves from Isaiah Bradley, Maurice Canfield, Sergeant Lucas Evans, and the other Black soldiers to Captain America’s search for the true foundations of his origin.
The shift to Cap interrogating Lieutenant Phillip Merritt, his conversation with Colonel Walker Price, and his conversation with Faith Bradley all place Cap at the center of the narrative, supplanting, specifically, Isaiah Bradley’s narrative. Today, I want to briefly look at this shift. I am currently trying to think through this, so the ideas will probably be pretty convoluted at some points.
Consuela Francis’ “American Truths: Blackness and the American Superhero” sparked me to think about the ways that the last two issues of Truth, while powerful, change the narrative focus, reinstating Cap and the image of the white superhero at the center and pushing Isaiah and the chance for a Black superhero to the margins.
Francis notes the similarities between Isaiah and Muhammad Ali, both men who were virile and threatening, because of their Blackness, to whites. Both, in their later years, deteriorate into shells of their former selves. Ali became “something of a national mascot” and Isaiah faded into obscurity, becoming like a child, unable to speak, dress himself, and sterile.
Ultimately, Isaiah’s deterioration and the focus on Cap trying to uncover the history of the supersoldier program allows the “conservative impulse, the impulse to maintain the status quo,” to close out the narrative. Francis concludes her essay by claiming that at the end of Truth Isaiah becomes “a pacified figure on whom Steve Rogers and the reader can project innocence and absolution.” What does Cap need to be absolved of? He did not know about the project’s history or about Isaiah until Merritt’s interrogation.
Truth focuses on the erased history of Black soldiers and Black history in the American narrative. This erasure, as I and others have written about, occurs at every level, beginning in the classroom. We do not get a formal educational setting in Truth, but we do get hints about what Cap may have learned in school. Did he learn about the Red Summer? Did he learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre? Did he know about W.E.B. Du Bois? Augusta Savage? These are all historical events and people that Truth presents readers with from the opening with Isaiah and Faith and the World’s Fair to Sgt. Evans talks with the other soldiers. The erasure is not just Isaiah’s story, it’s the collective African American history and American history.
That is what Truth tackles, the construction of history and myth. These issues come out from the very beginning but they hit home with Merritt and Price, both military men who purposefully eliminate the voices of Isaiah, Maurice, Lucas, and the other men. This dehumanization occurred throughout the supersoldier process through the government’s secrecy of the program and its dismissal of the lives of the Black men that they tested the serum on. Dr. Reinstein never refers to the men by name; instead, he relies on racist beliefs to discuss their deaths. When Maurice and Lucas die, he says, “Subjects A-27 and A-32 had both highly exaggerated thyroid glands, but such ferocious behavior can be explained only by unforseen inherent native flaws.”
When Cap approaches Price at Arlington National Cemetery in issue #7 and tells him he is seeking information on Isaiah, the Colonel, like Reinstein, flippantly dismisses Isaiah’s humanity. He tells Cap, “That’s what’s had you on my heels the last two days?! Oh, man, you had me going. For a minute, I thought this was about something serious.” What is interesting and important about this scene is the setting. Cap and Price begin their talk at the grave of Harper Price, the Colonel’s brother. As they walk through the cemetery, Price tells Cap about the history of eugenics and how he came to be CEO of Koch pharmaceutical, and their conversation ends with Cap saying he bought majority interest in Koch and will have Price removed as CEO.
During their conversation, the men walk amongst the grave stones. We see, a few families mourning their losses. The first is a Black family standing over a grave while Price talks about eugenics. The next is an older white couple walking through the cemetery as Price talks about Reinstein coming to the United States during the war. One panel has no words and it shows a military funeral. Cap and Price stare at the funeral ceremony, and everyone in the panel is silhouetted. They are all completely black. This movement works against Price’s comments because it shows Black and white families in the same space, mourning their loved ones who each served in the armed force defending the symbol of American freedom that Cap displays with his outfit.
When he speaks with Faith Bradley, she wears her burka for the first part of the conversation. After realizing this, she removes it and tells Cap why she wears it when she teaches, because “it de-emphasizes femininity and focuses attention on what I say, or on what people choose to project onto me.” She finishes by asking Cap, “Do you get that sort of thing because of your costume?” Cap’s uniform positions him, squarely, as a patriotic signifier. How people interpret that signifier varies from person to person.
The question that arises from these scenes is, “Does Cap need absolution?” This is the part of Francis’ essay that I struggle with. As a singular individual, does he need to be absolved for America’s past and the government’s treatment of Isaiah and the other men? Did he have anything to do with it? Did he have knowledge of it? He didn’t, as the narrative shows. If we think about Cap as that floating signifier, and that signifer landing firmly on American patriotism, then he does have to be absolved. He has to be absolved, like the reader, for not knowing. For not asking. For not seeing the blank spots around him.
This is not entirely Cap’s or the reader’s fault. This is what I think Truth tries to point out. It’s the fault of the ways we construct history. It’s the fault of those who silence voices and narratives. We cannot fully blame Cap or the reader for not knowing that silenced history. We can, though, interrogate the ways that they did not seek to question that history. Cap, through his questioning, becomes absolved, and in the process, absolves the reader. This is what Francis gets at. The absolution sets everything back the way it was before Truth began. She concludes by writing, “The narrative satisfies us that none of this has been Captain America’s (or our) fault and that we can get back to business as usual, namely, marginalizing the stories and voices of black characters, and, I would argue, black readers.”
No matter if we agree of disagree with Francis’ assertion that Cap and the reader need to be absolved, the return to the status quo is problematic. By returning “to business as usual,” we do marginalize Isaiah’s story. What has Isaiah’s story, within the narrative, done for representation? When Cap visits Isaiah, we see Isaiah and Faith’s grandson Litigious come up to Cap holding a comic book. Faith tells him, “It’s about a Chinese-American boy who loves comic books and dreams about a Chinese super hero.” Even in the text, Isaiah does not become the super hero for his own progeny. Instead, Cap, again and again, through Merritt and others, becomes the symbolic super hero.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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