In this installment of the Representation and Health Black History Spectacular, we are going to focus more intently on… well, history. There’s someone who’s vital to Marvel history, even if he made his first appearance in 2003. He reveals the tragic, racist, and violent past of America, but also how the achievements of White people were sometimes simultaneously coupled with active oppression toward Black people. He is a shining beacon of heroism despite oppression, and an excellent examination of race relations throughout history. Without further ado, I present Isaiah Bradley, Captain America.
Many people may not know that within Marvel continuity, Isaiah’s role and rise to Captain America was lost to history. He appeared in the miniseries Truth: Red, White and Black. This story focused on the American military’s endeavors to re-create the Super Soldier serum that had empowered Steve Rogers. Yet, this story has a rather sinister undercurrent that plays directly into the lived experience of Black people, young and old.
If you’ve never heard of the Tuskegee experiments, they are some of the most heinous things done to Black Americans in the name of science and a large part of why research ethics boards exist. Essentially, scientists at Tuskegee University in Alabama decided to study how untreated syphilis affects the body using Black men as the subject pool. Six hundred poor men from Alabama were recruited without informed consent, 399 who already had the disease and 201 did not.
While they received free medical care, food, and insurance for funerals, the money for the treatment of the disease dried up and the men were not informed of this change. None of them were treated or properly informed about voluntary withdrawal from the study, and this study went on for 40 years, rather than the proposed six months, formally ending in 1972.
How does this relate to Isaiah Bradley? Well, pretty much the same thing as the Tuskegee experiment happened in the Marvel Universe, except using the Super Soldier serum. Three hundred men were recruited, but only five survived. The US military then killed the remaining black personnel of the camp, lying to their families and saying they died in service. Isaiah is the last to survive the trials and the massacre, eventually taking on Nazis to halt their plans for recreating the serum, only to be captured. Once rescued, he’s sent to prison for 17 years.
Isaiah is important for many reasons. He highlights scientific entitlement to testing on marginalized people. Before ethical boards, many scientists and researchers conducted studies without the full consent or welfare of their subjects. Black people in particular were a prime target due to being disenfranchised or impoverished. In a time before the Civil Rights era, scientists may not have felt they needed to properly inform Black subjects, especially if they did not see them as human. These events and treatment by the medical and scientific field has led to a large distrust of clinicians within Black communities, often to heartbreaking results.
Isaiah also represents that when you’re Black and your existence is a barrier to someone’s agenda, you can be sent to prison or worse. Black people are routinely and unjustly incarcerated, and if not that, they are killed. Black people are a majority of the prison population and are more likely to be charged and given longer and harsher sentences. Isaiah helped his country, only to see the inside of the cell for years and be left with a degenerating body and mind. While fictional, his plight mirrors that of many Black men within 20th century America.
These stories are important because they remind us of the atrocities of unencumbered racism and that sometimes people say they do good for us and they do not mean it. Isaiah’s story is one that many Black people are familiar with. We have all been close to or at least heard of someone who was charged or killed unjustly. We know about structural racism from the military to the police to our educational system. For a Captain America to be experimented on and imprisoned meant that even though you held the country’s highest honor, you are still targeted if you’re Black.
Imagine, then, the value that Isaiah could have for older Black men in the military, for Black people today who have been unjustly tried, or received a longer sentence than a White person committing the same crime. Having some kind of avatar can be vastly integral to offenders not recidivating because they see themselves through someone that helps them process difficult emotions and the elements that lead to criminal decisions. Isaiah’s value is one reflective of a history of oppression and dehumanization that we are STILL working to remedy.
Stories like Truth: Red White and Black challenge the comics status quo by including a Black man, but also by truly discussing scientific and cultural racism. Isaiah’s existence however is not fully defined by pain. Without him, his grandson Eli, also known as Patriot, may not have healed from extensive wounds. Luke Cage saw himself in Isaiah and other Black heroes were honored to be in his presence. Like much of Black history and culture, while we have experienced pain and struggle rarely known, we also have a sense of pride. Granted, there are many things to fix, such as the role of hypermasculinity in creating oppression and how to reduce homophobia and transphobia within our community. Yet, many of us if nothing else find a way to honor ourselves, even if our heroes fall short.
Struggle, oppression, and marginalization does not an identity make, but it influences it. Isaiah endured so many trials to end up where he did: loving grandfather and father, heroic icon. Within his narrative, there are many threads to follow that help to enhance the conversation about racism, especially in comics. This is no attempt to glorify struggle and herald it as a symbol of struggle, but rather an examination of how marginalization can reach heinous extremes and still not stop many people from thriving.
I highly recommend EVERYONE read Truth: Red, White, and Black. There are some rather unfortunate parallels to people who decry diversity in comics, but it also reveals that the roots and history run deeper than we like to imagine or discuss. Reading this story as a Black man was hard, because there are times when I can still see the ramifications of things like the military’s actions in Black people’s lives today. We were enslaved for centuries, only to be ‘freed’ into a world in which we could not fully remedy the economic barriers because others were placed before us. This went on to affect Black people with intersecting marginalized identities. Truth: Red, White, and Black is emotionally raw and evocative, so you may need something happy afterward, but it is a small picture of what it’s like to navigate America through the experience of Blackness.
How do you feel about Isaiah Bradley and his history? What other parts of this narrative do you feel help us to discuss racism and the existence of oppression? Hit me up at @80Grey on Twitter! For an in depth look at Blackness in comics, check out the rest of Representation and Health Black History Spectacular!