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Captain America, Marvel Comics’ PC Makeover, And The Tuskegee Libel
The summer blockbuster movie Captain America: The First Avenger is opening on a myriad screens right across America today, July 22. (It will be called The First Avenger for international audiences—American Exceptionalism apparently doesn’t sell well overseas). Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, the World War II 4-F reject who volunteers for a super-soldier experiment and ultimately becomes the super hero.
Which shows, pleasingly, that there are some limits (make that limit$) to the risks that Hollywood will take for Political Correctness.
In 2002, Marvel Comics was inspired to order up a radical reimaging of Captain America, who first appeared in 1940. The New York writer Robert Morales, a Puerto Rican, was commissioned to write a new origin story. He submitted a pilot, Captain America: Truth, that, in his words was "so bleak, I thought they were just going to shy away from it”. [Brother from another comic What if the original Captain America had been black?, by Howard Shapiro, November 21, 2002.] But the enlightened Marvel management did not.
Morales retconned the Marvel official canon by making the first Captain America a Black guy named Isaiah Bradley. As the New York Times token black editorial writer Brent Staples also enthused at the time:
"Captain America was originally Steve Rogers, a Depression-era baby who tried to join the Army but was rejected because he was sickly and thin. As a good American, Steve naturally volunteered to participate in an experiment by the vaunted Professor Reinstein (it rhymes with Einstein) whose secret serum turned the weakling into a well-muscled 'supersoldier,' dressed in a costume derived from the flag. The good captain's very first issue shows him delivering a knockout punch to Hitler. He has been a popular figure in the comics ever since.
“The Captain America I followed as a teenager during the 1960's was a big, brawny white guy. The Captain America who is about to be introduced to fans in the 'Truth' series is, by contrast, very black.”
Introducing an important theme, Staples wrote:
“The writer, Robert Morales, has apparently borrowed a page from the real history of the infamous Tuskegee experiments, and begun with the premise that the tall, blond Steve Rogers could not have been Professor Reinstein's first guinea pig. The fictional idea behind the series is that a supersoldier serum was tested first on black soldiers, who were then pushed aside when the time arrived for the Army to select a blond champion.'"
None of this, nor any allusion to the Tuskegee Experiment, features in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger. It has returned to the original plot line—greatly to the annoyance of the black blogosphere.
Reading the revised comic (published as Truth: Red, White & Black) one is amazed that this story isn’t the one coming to a theater near you. Morales was quoted by Shapiro as saying he’d decided that
“[R]acism would just be an element and it wouldn't be something everyone would harp on again and again and again. You have characters who will explain the racial situation, but Truth is not the kind of thing where somebody will stand on a soapbox and complain for six issues."
But that’s not true (so to speak). Set during a time when the military was still segregated—it was desegregated by a 1948 executive order from President Harry Truman, after white soldiers had won World War II—the Black Captain America story has all of the required stories to make the most stoic white liberal weep like a baby into his bowl of white privilege: Black people being used in medical experiments; the Double V campaign; evil white officers massacring hundreds of Black enlisted men; a vast cover-up of the initial Black Captain America; the Black Captain America becoming an urban legend and hero exclusively in the Black community by only helping members of that community; and a guilt-ridden Steve Rogers who realizes that he is only fraudulently called the First Avenger.
Needless to say, Main Stream Media outlets all lauded the story. See National Public Radio (NPR).
But—and this is clearly what got Hollywood’s attention—despite Shapiro and Staples’ cheerleading assertions the contrary, the actual comic-book audience failed to purchase the series. It became one of those left-wing critically-acclaimed market failures we are all accustomed too. (Think Air America and all the attempts by such as Mario Cuomo and Jim Hightower to become liberal Rush Limbaughs.)
In the 2009 book Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero, we learn how poorly the series did. In an essay entitled Not Just Another Racist Honkey, Ora McWilliams writes:
"The book was not really well received by fans, and was not a critical success. Circulation numbers for the first issue were almost 75,000, but by the final issues they dipped to just 33,000… the first issue sets up a common criticism of the series as a whole: 'Morales [the writer] has, for all intents and purposes, taken a high concept that could have really gone somewhere and boiled it down to ‘white people bad, black people not.’
“There is a scene in issue 2 of The Truth in which the US. Army loads as many people from the black platoon as it can fit in the trucks. The implication is that the army slaughters the rest. That issue also ends with images of the African Americans on the trucks that are sort-of-reminiscent of movies that depict Nazi concentration camps. "
But isn’t that all American history has been distilled down to, one long parade of "white people bad, black people not"?
When you actually look at the panels in The Truth that detail the alleged massacre, you wonder that Hollywood never turned this into a film. A white officer in military intelligence has just murdered the commanding officer of the Black military training base, Camp Cathcart, and orders the white lieutenant to "gather three hundred Negro soldiers and get them on those trucks ASAP. We’re moving out."
Upon getting the men on the trucks—they will ultimately become the test subjects for the serum that will create a Captain America—the same lieutenant orders another officer to keep the rest of the Black troops at the camp, saying, "Okay soldier, don’t take too long with these boys".
The implication, as the trucks sped off from the camp, is that the rest of the Black soldiers not part of the super-soldier tests are slaughtered. One of the Black men on the trucks asks "Sarge... is that shooting I’m hearing?"
Back to Tuskegee. As Tom Sinclair wrote in Entertainment Weekly”:
"The story's premise has obvious historical roots in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which, from 1932 to 1972, the United States Public Health Service studied the effects of untreated syphilis on poor rural blacks. 'The high-concept question was, Would it stand to reason that the super-soldier program would have made its prime guinea pigs guys of Steve Rogers' demographic?' asks Truth editor Axel Alonso. 'If the word Tuskegee rings a bell, you might know the answer.'"[Black In Action, Nov 22, 2002]
The theme is further elaborated here:
"The book’s premise is based off of the infamous Tuskegee Experiments where the U.S. Public Health Service along with the Tuskegee Institute infected almost 400 Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama with syphilis without their knowledge from 1932 to 1972. Many of the men were illiterate and poor and were kept in the dark about the disease, and even when a cure was found for syphilis in 1947, the PHS went through extreme measures to make sure the infected men were not treated. Even men that enlisted in the service who were required to be tested for diseases weren’t out of the reach of the PHS, who kept treatment from them even there. As a result of this event many of the men died from the disease while others were left sterile or passed away due to other side effects from the disease. Wives of the men were either infected, lost their lives, or gave birth to infected children as well. The story finally went public in the Washington Evening Star during the summer of 1972. As a result of the many hearings and lawsuits, the U.S. Government ended up paying nine million dollars to the survivors and their families. It wasn’t until 1997 that then President Bill Clinton delivered a formal apology for the event during a ceremony at the White House."
Wait a second. Hasn’t the entire concept of the Tuskegee Experiments—used to make successive generations of white school children feel guilty for how their grandparents treated poor, defenseless Black people—been proven to be fraudulent?
As Jared Taylor wrote for VDARE.com:
"The Tuskegee syphilis study ranks almost with slavery and lynching as a symbol of America's racist past. There is probably not one black American adult who does not know—or thinks he knows—about an experiment from the 1930s in which government health authorities deliberately withheld treatment from 400 black syphilitics just to see what would happen to them.
“In some versions of story, the government deliberately infected the men. At the very least, the authorities are said to have been guilty of withholding the effective treatments that became available in the 1950s.
“Blacks often cite fear of 'another Tuskegee' to explain why few of them cooperate with public health programs or donate organs for transplant. They never know when white doctors might experiment on them.
“Anthropologist Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago has just published a detailed analysis of the Tuskegee study in which he shows that virtually every popular assumption about it is false. (Tuskegee re-examined, January 8, 2004)
“The study was undertaken by 'progressives' who wanted to fight a disease that afflicted many blacks, it had the full support of black medical authorities to the end, and—most important—it probably caused no harm to the 140 men (not 400) who took part.
“The U.S. Public Health Service started the study in 1932 in Macon County, Alabama, where syphilis rates for blacks ranged between 20 and 36 percent.
“At the time, there were a number of treatments for the disease but they were complicated, disagreeable, and not very effective. They involved a year-long series of carefully-monitored intravenous injections of an arsenic compound that had such unpleasant side-effects that fully 85 percent of patients dropped out before treatment was complete. Of the 15 percent who stuck it out, few were cured.
“Public health officials knew they needed better drugs. But they also needed a baseline to which they could compare the results of treatment. This was why they wanted to know what happens if there was no treatment.
“As Prof. Shweder explains, syphilis is not always the raging killer most of us think it is. First of all, it is only in the early stages of the disease, when sores appear on the body, that it is contagious. This was the only stage at which arsenic had any effect at all. After that, syphilis goes into a latent state, in which there are no symptoms, and the patient is not infectious. Untreated syphilis can then go on the tertiary stage and destroy vital organs like the heart and brain—this is what happened to famous victims like Nietzsche—but for perhaps 80 percent of syphilitics, the disease stays latent, as if they never had it. The longer the disease is latent, the longer it is likely to stay that way. It is, in Professor Shweder's terms, 'self-limiting or self-correcting.'
“Today, most public information campaigns don't emphasize this. Health authorities trumpet the potential for devastation rather than tell people they have a good chance of escaping unscathed. The Illinois Department of Health is the exception in explaining that:
'If untreated, syphilis then lapses into a latent stage during which the disease is no longer contagious and no symptoms are present. Many people who are not treated will suffer no further consequences of the disease.'
“It was this latent stage that health authorities wanted to investigate in 1932. Consequently, when they examined 410 syphilitic blacks for possible inclusion in the study, they found many were in the early, infectious stage, and rejected them as candidates. They turned over no fewer than 178 for the standard arsenic treatment, and kept 140 for the study. They then checked up on these men at rather lengthy intervals—in 1938, 1948, 1952, and 1963—giving them full physical examinations, and treating them for any disease other than syphilis.
“A black nurse named Eunice Rivers ran the program, keeping in close contact with the men to make sure they did not drift out of touch. She was apparently a remarkable woman who created something of a social club around the study.
“The outset of the program was therefore entirely unobjectionable. The men had already entered the latency stage of syphilis, for which the standard and largely ineffective cure of the day was no good at all. Foregoing that was no hardship, and in exchange they got free medical checkups and the benefits of Nurse Rivers' kind attention. The authorities at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute blessed the study.
Still, Taylor noted, by the mid-1950s, penicillin had become the standard cure for syphilis. Shouldn’t the program have been stopped then? His answer:
“No. By the 1950s, the men had been infected for 20 or 25 years. Some number had died of heart disease probably brought on by tertiary syphilis, but for those who were still alive in the 1950s, the disease had very likely run its course. Ninety men were still part of the program at the time of the last examination in 1963. Penicillin treatment, even when it first became available, would probably have done them no good. Prof. Shweder suggests that by then these men may well have had life expectancies as high as black men of the same age who had never had syphilis at all!”
Presumably black people’s similar reluctance to join the military and become real-life American Heroes, members of SEAL Team 6 etc., can blamed on white people still hogging the valor—something Steve Rogers did when he thought he was the first and only Captain America.
So today, Captain America: The First Avenger will hit theaters. But the story being told will not be Marvel’s now-official version of the first, true Captain America. That honor, as you have learned, belongs to Isaiah Bradley, the Black man who was the beneficiary of the super-soldier (read Tuskegee Experiment) serum. Hollywood flinched.
As someone said: That’s racist!
Paul Kersey[Email him] is the author of the blog SBPDL, and has published the books SBPDL Year One and Hollywood in Blackface. He works in political consulting and resides in Denver, Colorado. This article is adapted from the book Captain America and Whiteness: The Dilemma of the Superhero, which will be published soon.