One subject of fascination for me as a lifelong comic fan is the fascination of black people with the figure of Captain America. The history of black people in this country is complicated at best. Slavery, bigotry and racism have been a plague on African Americans for centuries. Objectively, the character would seem to be the antithesis of what most black people stand for: a blonde haired, blue-eyed physical representation of the Aryan ubermensch or ‘the perfect man’.
However, The Captain, at his core, is really a representation of the purest form of the American ideal. Cap is shown as a totally selfless man who is willing to put his life on the line for the cause of liberty, freedom and equality for all men. The fact is there are several interpretations of Captain America-themed heroes who are African-American and this article will be a guide a few of them.
Is Cap ‘One of Us’?
Many black people have given their lives in the pursuit of equality. Even now, African Americans are united in protest against police brutality and systemic racism. Ideally, Captain America is seen to have no prejudices and no biases. Cap sees a man for his character, not his skin color. This has been demonstrated several times over the years with different writers and Marvel. Cap’s longest serving crime fighting partner is The Falcon, an African American. Cap sponsored The Black Panther’s admission into The Avengers and thus making him the first black Avenger.
Another attractive quality of Cap to African-Americans is the many instances of Cap showing to be anti-government. In fact, Cap has quit his post a number of times when he finds that he is actually being coerced by corrupt government officials. A one great example would be in the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier when he turns his back on the security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. after finding out it’s been taken over by the fascist organization HYDRA. More so than any other hero, the ideal of Captain America has been imprinted onto many African American characters.
Truth: Red, White and Black
The concept of a black Captain America was first realized in the 2003 limited series Truth: Red, White & Black written by Robert Morales and drawn by Kyle Baker. The origin of the story started with an offhand comment by Marvel’s publisher, Bill Jemas in a meeting with Marvel’s editor Joe Quesada. Morales was brought in to write the story.
Initially, the idea of an African American Captain America made Morales laugh but the comic scribe notes that “I wrote a proposal that was so staggeringly depressing I was certain they’d turn it down. But they didn’t.”
Morales originally proposed that this new character be a scientist who experimented on himself. However, Marvel requested a deliberate reference to the infamous Tuskegee Experiments. The real-life experiment — The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male — was an grossly unethical clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in the Southern U.S. by the United States Public Health Service.
The study was meant to observe the effects of untreated syphilis by subjecting African-American men to the disease under the pretense that they were receiving free health care from the United States government.
The Saga of Isaiah Bradley
Truth: Red, White & Black shows that Project: Rebirth was a collaboration between U.S., British and German eugenicists led by Dr. Wilfred Nagel and Dr. Koch. At the beginning of World War II, the program is split into two sections: Koch takes over the German program and Nagel takes over the American program under the name of ‘Josef Reinstein‘. Each section has the same mission: To recreate the Super Soldier Serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America one year prior to the events of this story.
Reinstein tested his formula on three hundred African-American soldiers who are taken from Camp Cathcart in Mississippi. In the name of ‘national security‘, the camp’s commander and hundreds of black soldiers left behind at Camp Cathcart were executed by white US soldiers. The government then told the families of the three hundred subjects that their loved ones were all killed in battle. One of those three hundred subjects was a newly married soldier from New York named Isaiah Bradley. Isaiah would leave behind his wife Faith and newly born daughter Sarah Gail.
The early attempts to refine the formula had most of the black soldiers subjected to experiments that proved to be fatal at an undisclosed location. A soldier is injected with the faulty serum by a white nurse and, seconds later, the serum caused the soldier to overdevelop growth hormone and literally explode in a bloody mess. Of the three hundred, only five subjects survive the original trials.
Eventually, Bradley emerges the sole survivor of his group. He is then coerced to engage in a suicide mission to destroy the Nazis Super-Soldier efforts at the Schwarzebitte concentration camp. Before the mission, he takes a spare chain mesh costume and a grey shield intended for Captain America for protection.
Isaiah decorated the triangular metal shield with the eagle crest of the Double V campaign, a symbol of a victory against the Axis as well as a victory against racial discrimination in America. The mission is successful but Bradley ends up captured the Germans and he is even brought before the Führer himself. It is decided to dissect Isaiah in order to reverse engineer his powers and send his spare parts back to America as a ‘message’. Bradley is later rescued by German insurgents while in transit. Bradley returns to America only to be unjustly court-martialed and imprisoned at Leavenworth in 1943. His offense: taking the Captain America uniform without permission.
In 1960, Bradley is pardoned by President Eisenhower and released due to the constant petitioning of his wife Faith. However, because of the imperfect nature of the Super Soldier Serum in his body, Isaiah’s mind deteriorates in prison to the point where he reverts the mindset of a small child. The serum also leaves him sterile and unable to produce any more children. NOTE: Morales pushed for an ending in which Bradley suffered brain damage as a reference to the late great boxer/activist Muhammad Ali.
Over the years, the story of “The Black Captain America” Isaiah Bradley becomes an underground legend among the African-American community in the Marvel Universe. The story shows that the most noted Africans and African-Americans of the twentieth century’s last four decades have visited Bradley as a sign of respect. He receives fictional visits from figures such as Malcolm X, Richard Pryor, Angela Davis, Alex Haley, Nelson Mandela, Colin Powell, James Brown, Robert Redford, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and Stan Lee.
Isaiah was a special guest at the wedding of Storm and the Black Panther in Wakanda during the ‘Civil War‘ storyline. Several African-American heroes are awestruck by his appearance including, Goliath (Bill Foster), Monica Rambeau, Triathlon, and The Falcon. Luke Cage even refers to Bradley as “the first me” to the Canadian-born X-Man Wolverine who had no idea of Bradley’s importance.
While Isaiah was the first to have the title of ‘The Black Captain America’, he would not be the last. Next up is the character Josiah X who was created by Christopher Priest and Joe Bennett and debuted in The Crew #1 (2003). According to Priest, Josiah is based largely on Malcolm X and visually inspired by the character Detective Alonzo Harris played by Denzel Washington in the movie Training Day.
While Isaiah is in prison in Leavenworth, the government attempts to use his altered DNA to create another Super-Soldier. After 39 attempts, the result is a child named Josiah, Isaiah and Faith’s genetic son. A young African-American girl matching Faith’s blood type served as the surrogate mother. The girl discovered the truth about what the child would be used for and escaped with Josiah and found Faith Bradley, Isaiah’s wife. Faith publicly told the girl that their house was watched and it was not safe for the child to be with them.
In an elaborate ploy, Faith sent the girl out, screaming for her to run with Sarah Gail’s doll in a basket. Later, Faith and Sarah Gail snuck out of the house and put the infant on a train. Sarah Gail left a note on her brother’s blanket, “My name is Josiah.“
Josiah grew up in a Catholic orphanage outside of Boston during the early years of his life. His powers first manifested when he shoved a nun and accidentally knocked her unconscious, thinking he had killed her. Josiah fled, lied about his age, and enlisted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War under the assumed name of Josiah Smith. He served several tours in the Vietnam War, becoming a seasoned and experienced veteran. His unit, made up of primarily black soldiers, were nearly killed on a mission by a racist officer’s order to bomb the area while they were still on patrol. Josiah assaulted the officer, was given a court martial and sent to serve out his sentence in Leavenworth, the place he was born.
A blood test showed that Josiah was the missing Super-Soldier baby. His surrogate mother was brought in to confirm a genetic match, and she again helped him to escape. She also told him the truth about his past and the real first names of his genetic parents.
After meeting his real parents, Josiah leaves the US and travels abroad as a independent military contractor and mercenary for a number of years.
While in Africa on a mission, Josiah discovers the Islamic faith and decided to use it to find a purpose for his life. He replaces his last name Bradley with the letter “X” to symbolize his allegiance to the Lost Tribe of Shabazz. Josiah becomes a Muslim minister and runs a Muslim Mission in the “Mog” (Little Mogadishu) in Brooklyn, New York.
Josiah became involved with James Rhodes‘ clandestine group known as “The Crew” after they were mistakenly believe he was a criminal. Josiah eventually joins them in order to seek out those who had also turned his neighborhood into a war zone. Josiah adopts the name of Justice as a hero and carries the same scarred battle shield belonging to his father Isaiah.
NOTE: When Iron Lad forms the Young Avengers, he attempts to recruit Josiah, but he was ‘unavailable’; Iron Lad instead recruits his nephew Elijah Bradley— who we will explore in our next feature!
Stay tuned next week — same Belser time, same Belser channel — when we delve futher into The History of Black Cap with The Patriot and The Falcon!