TRUTH: Red, White & Black – The Story of the First Captain America
Robert Morales (writer), Kyle Baker (penciller, inker, colorist), Wes Abbott (letters), and Axel Alonso and John Miesegaes (editors)
Marvel Comics (January to June 2003)
When asked to add their thoughts to our roundtable on the “American Dream” and comics that reflect what it ought to be, Catie Coleman and Jess Pryde both turned their thoughts to Isaiah Bradley—the first Captain America from Marvel’s Truth: Red, White & Black. In light of recent events in the United States, this story means even more now than it ever did and is something every American should read and remember.
Catie Coleman: I’m still amazed that Truth: Red, White & Black actually exists, that Marvel let this subversive, brutally honest book about the dark side of the Captain America legacy actually get published under its own name. Reading it is almost like realizing, “Of course! This was part of the Captain America mythos all along, but it just took this book to actually spell it out.” Steve Roger’s dark mirror isn’t the Winter Soldier; it’s Isaiah Bradley who is tested and tortured without his consent, but went on to be a hero despite what was done to him. For that, he was locked up and experimented on some more, and opposed to the forever-young and beloved Captain America, in present-day Marvel comics, he’s disabled from all the trauma America has put him through. One more person chewed up and spat out in our quest for our national destiny.
Black bodies have always been expendable to the American government. You only have to look at the news about how we used minority soldiers as test subjects for chemical weapons to see why they’d use a black unit of soldiers to re-create the super soldier serum. It’s awful and true, and this story is a way of making Americans look at that history we are so good at pushing under the rug.
Independence Day is always a strange holiday, a day to celebrate the grand ideals that the country was founded on, but never quite manages to live up to. That’s part of the American paradox, I think. Nations have been doing horrific things to each other and their own citizens since time began, and in that the United States of America is not so different from the rest. But the whole point of the United States’ founding was to be better, and so the country is constantly dealing with cognitive dissonance between what it is/does/has been and what we want it to be. Too often, American citizens deal with this inherent dissonance by doubling-down on the flag-waving, jingoistic patriotism that says America is always right, and if we’ve hurt you, then you must have deserved it. It’s Captain America punching Hitler on the face of a lunch box, and that’s as deep as our knowledge of our own history has to go.
I want more for us, more for this country, and the first step to that is acknowledging the horrible things we’ve done (are still doing). Truth: Red, White & Black is an uncomfortable read if you’re a white American, and it should be. We’re Steve Rogers in the story, wholly ignorant and horrified by the things that were done on our account. What happened to Isaiah Bradley is not something Steve Rogers can solve or undo, just like modern Americans can’t go back and prevent the internment of fellow Japanese-American citizens. That sense of helplessness is horrible. We as a people aren’t good at not being able to fix problems immediately, and learning from and atoning for our mistakes instead is not exactly a national strong-point. We’re going to have to get better that if we ever want this country to be all that it can be.
Truth: Red, White & Black should be taught in high school English classes across America, not just as a brilliant piece of comics storytelling, but as a way to spark that national conversation we need so much if we’re actually ever going to manage truth, justice, and liberty for all.
Jess Pryde: Long before Sam Wilson carried the Shield, there was a regiment of black troops who just wanted to fight for their country. But instead of being sent across the world, they were sent to a small camp Stateside, where several members of the regiment did not survive the tests being done to them. And those who did were not always in the greatest of health.
There was one soldier in particular—a smart, scholarly man, friend to many, but sometimes a little hot headed—who made the decision to use this horrid experiment to fight the great fight against Hitler while Steve Rogers was off in the Pacific somewhere. Steve Rogers had gotten the “perfected” version of the experiment so many of Isaiah’s friends and fellow soldiers did not survive.
We could talk all day about the horrors of erasure and the real, terrifying things that have been done to black people in America for the past two centuries. How black soldiers—whose only difference from their white brethren was their appearance—had to fight twice as hard both on the battlefield and off of it to get anything close to the rights and recognition of their peers. We could talk about a history of millions of people being swept aside, or worse, openly hated and murdered, even to this day. But it is the end of Isaiah’s tale that speaks to the idea of the American Dream for me.
It is Steve Rogers, America’s Captain, heartbroken and fascinated at this story no one ever bothered to tell him. It is the symbol of the United States acting upon the need to make things as right as he possibly can, in whatever way that he can—someone in a position of power cares! It is the fact that decades later, this story can be heard, accepted as truth, and presented to the world. Obviously, Truth: Red, White and Black is a new story. It’s not as old as the people it presents, the way the original Captain America comics are. But Stan Lee and Marvel Comics have accepted it and added it to the Avengers canon; they have acknowledged the sins of our past as we look to and hope for a better tomorrow, and that is the true American Dream.