Over the past few weeks, the Crusading in Color crew has been live Tweeting our readings through Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White, and Black. I’ve read Truth multiple times, and I’ve taught it once. Each time I reread this series, something new arises. This time, with the discussions that we had online about the series, new things started to stand out. Specifically, we talked about the symbolic nature of Captain America throughout Truth, and this discussion opened up countless other avenues to explore. Today, I want to briefly look at how we read Captain America in this series, and this discussion will, in many ways, serve as an extension to my post “Absolution in Truth: Red, White, and Black.” I won’t be able to explore every angle of this topic, but I hope that it will provide a foundation for further discussion.
First and foremost, I started to notice, as I reread Truth, that we never see Captain America without his uniform in the series. We never see him as Steve Rogers. Rather, every time he appears, he wears his uniform and usually carries his shield. He constantly exists as the symbol of America, a symbol that does not go away but remains always at the forefront of the narrative. With this in mind, the question becomes, “What does the symbol mean?”
Captain America does not enter the narrative, proper, until the end of issue #5 where we see him sitting at the kitchen table with Faith, dressed in a niqab telling him, “Whatever made you think Isaiah was dead?” When I look at this page, I can’t help but think about the ways that it sets up and challenges the ways we perceive America. Here, we have Captain America, dressed in his stars and stripes, sitting across the table from Faith, a woman wearing a Muslim veil. We see what America should be, not what the perceived American should be, and this is where the tension arises in issue #6, “The Whitewash.”
“The Whitewash” focuses on Captain America and FBI Agent Damian Spinard interrogating Phillip Merritt for numerous crimes. I’m written about Merritt before, but one thing I never picked up, and I’m not sure why I didn’t pick up on it, is that Merritt owns and runs numerous comic book shops. This fact jumped out at me this time, partly, because I’ve been writing and thinking about Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther and his use of Everett K. Ross as the narrator in a move to get white, male comic readers invested in the series.
Even as Captain America rattles off all of the crimes that Merritt is accused of, Merritt looks up lovingly from his seat, a smile moving across his face. Even after Captain America and Spinard put Merritt in his place, Merritt holds up an issue of Captain America and pleads with the hero to sign it before he leaves. Throughout, Merritt’s views of Captain America rest on white supremacy and racism, not on the ideals of the nation. He views the superhero as an extension of himself, his whiteness, and he believes that his whiteness makes him superior to others. In this manner, Merriit serves, in ways, like the Everrett K. Ross of Truth: Red, White, and Black. He misconstrues the symbol of Captain America, and he warps the symbol into his own white supremacist mindset.
Merritt’s mindset even plays into the title of the issue, “The Whitewash.” The US government erased any indication of Bradley and the other soldiers, and this occurred, in part, to maintain the status quo. When Merritt tells Captain America about Isaiah Bradley and the other Black men who were guinea pigs for the super soldier serum, his eyes get big and a look of shock and surprise cross his face as he sits and listens. Captain America hears the truth, and that truth shatters his previously held beliefs.
The final issue, “The Blackvine,” continues this thread. The cover shows Captain America in the bottom right and silhouettes of Faith and Isaiah in the top left corner. In between them is a maze, a maze that Captain America must complete to learn the truth. Within this issue we see a counter to Merritt’s warped projection of his ideals onto Captain America. We see, through Faith, the ways that we project our own ideas and beliefs onto the individuals and symbols.
As they sit at the kitchen table, Faith removes her veil and tells Captain America that she was a professor of comparative religion and still teaches some classes during the summer at Hofstra University. She adds, “that’s what I’m making the effort to represent, you know. Given the climate towards Islam, it unsettles people, but it de-emphasizes femininity and focuses on what I say, or on what people choose to project onto me.” Here, Faith points out that individuals can focus on her or project their own ideas onto her appearance, and the latter is where the issues of symbolism come into play.
Faith then asks Captain American, “Do you get that sort of thing because of your costume?” Again, Captain American always wears the costume in this series, thus we must continually think of him as a symbol. We must project our own ideas of America onto him. Merritt projects his ideas of white supremacy onto Captain America, ideas that whitewash the foundations of the nation. For us as readers, how do we view Captain America? Do we view him as naive? Innocent? Complicit? That’s the question.
Ultimately, I view him as striving to symbolize the ideals of the nation but falling short in the end. We see him with Faith, a scene that really highlights the what the United States could be, a true multicultural, all inclusive nation for all. This is important within the historical context of the series, of course, since it appeared two years after 9/11 and the start of the War on Terror. However, even with moments like this, Captain America ultimately falls ways short of embodying the ideals of what the nation espouses.
At the end, when Captain America meets Isaiah, all we hear is his voice. Isaiah Bradley has been silences. Captain American tells Isaiah, “I can’t say enough how sorry I am for what happened to you and your family. I wish I could undo all the suffering you’ve gone through. If I could’ve taken your place.” Captain America has come face to face with the United States’ racist past, and all he can do is say, “I’m sorry. I wish I could do more. Here is your old uniform.” What does that do? Does that work to truly ameliorate the past? To alleviate the injustices in the present? No. Instead, Captain America merely hands Isaiah the old tattered uniform and they take a picture together.
The final snapshot is telling as well. We see both men smiling, arms around one another. Isaiah has the tattered top of the uniform over his clothes, and Captain America’s uniform is pristine. In this manner, we see the sordid history, but we also see the reconciliation, the absolving of this history. Is this right? How does this make us feel? If we think about Captain America as a symbol, it tells us as readers, “Everything is ok. We’ve righted the wrong. Now go about your business.” That’s not how we should think about this. Isaiah and Faith suffered for years because of this history, the racism, the bigotry, the whitewashing. Merely expressing sorrow and giving Isaiah his uniform does not rectify what occurred and does not, in any way, provide a path forward. Thus, the symbol of Captain America remains the status quo.