Four years ago I wrote a piece titled, “Captain America and the Defense of the American Dream.” I posted it on Inauguration Day and it considered how we, as a nation, should respond to Trump’s election, using Captain America as the frame for analysis. It examined Captain America as a character, his history, and what lessons he could offer when the world we thought we knew was turned so completely upside down. Now, four years later, Joe Biden is about to be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States alongside Kamala Harris – the first woman, first Woman of Color, first Indian America, and the first Asian American to hold the office of Vice President. I find myself looking to Captain America once again, to the brilliant narrative Ta-Nehisi Coates’ has been telling in Captain America since July 2018, as I try to process the last four years and consider my roll in the future.
It feels like this piece should begin with a looking back, a sort of summary of what comprised the last four years with Trump as president. But…I am at a loss for how to even begin writing something like that. How do you sum something like that up? For four years I lived in a state of perpetual emotional whiplash, my attention being pulled to the next unthinkable crisis/event/tweet before I could even begin to get a handle on what had immediately preceded it. How do you respond to anything when everything keeps exploding around you? In that post from four years ago I suggested:
“If nothing else, I encourage everyone reading this to make a vow today to always speak out. This must be our first step. We must challenge injustice and inaccuracies whenever we see or hear them. Silence in the face of such ideas is dangerous. We mustn’t be derogatory or divisive in our comments. But we must be unrelenting. Driven by compassion and a righteous fire for justice we must rise up like the biblical prophets of old and hold those in power, as well as our fellow citizens, accountable.”
Oh Past Michael…you had NO IDEA what was to come. How could I? How could anyone? I still agree with that sentiment but when life becomes a 24/7 barrage of one spotlighted injustice after another with the media normalizing it all, growing divides in our country that don’t reflect differing political views but different views of reality, and our elected officials proving day in and day out that the elegant system of checks and balances our Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution only work if our elected officials are operating with some basic morality, you can only do so much. Yes, there’s the time to speak the truth in love and challenge the injustice around you. But you also need to tuck and roll, taking time to unplug and recharge so you can have the strength to continue fighting day after day.
The American Dream – the idea of Liberty and Justice for All – has never been equally assured. But the unabashed way in which that inequality was celebrated? Four years ago I wrote, “the campaign he ran unlocked and granted faux-legitimacy to the worst ideals lurking in our country. Suddenly a segment of our population felt pride in being ignorant of history, facts, religions, and cultures. They felt pride in being hateful, racist, sexist, misogynistic, and jingoistic. Today, they feel vindication.” I was right…but in my wildest imagination I couldn’t’ve predicted this.
Through his entire run on Captain America to date, Ta-Nehisi Coates has examined all the questions, anger, rage, frustrations, and despair so many of us have felt during the Trump presidency – using the Captain America-as-America allegory to great effect. Set after the events of Secret Empire (where Hydra conquered the country with a corrupted version of Captain America who championed their racist, fascist ideals), issue #1 shows the people don’t trust Captain America anymore. Just as we live in a fractured country many of us no longer trust or even recognize, the majority of the people in the Marvel Universe feel the same way towards Captain America. Cap wants to be what he was, to stand for what he stood for, to protect them – “A soldier at home or away. A man loyal to nothing…except the dream.” – as he once did. But how does he get back to that place? How do we? How do we trust again? How do we make ourselves better?
Because that’s the thing. We have to fix ourselves to make this country better. Biden’s election goes a long way towards righting the ship. We once more have someone who understands politics, embraces science, seeks to unite instead of divide, and has a functioning sense of morality at the helm. In an election with record turnout, we the people said “no” to Trump’s agenda. But all of us didn’t. And for those of us who did, voting isn’t enough. It’s a huge step! It’s vital to a functioning democracy! But it doesn’t stop there. We have come to see our politics like sporting events – come election day one side wins and one side loses and then we check out for the next four years until it’s time to do it again. But Biden and Harris can’t fix all that ails us, all the divides us, all that corrupts us on their own. They can guide. They can lead. They can set an important tone and steer our course in the world at large. But what happens every day, what happens between us as people, we alone can address. That’s what heals us.
In the closing narration of issues #1 Steve thinks, “We have, all of us, forgotten something. Forgotten how hard it is to believe in the Dream. To hold onto the Dream in the face of chaos. How hard it is to be truly American. We have forgotten that true freedom is a problem. A question, not an answer. Freedom from what? For what? And having lost our way in the storm, we found shelter. An antidote for the chaos. This is not the story you see in the papers. But it’s the story I see in her eyes. Hydra conquered the people – that is the story they tell. No. The people forgot. We forgot. I forgot. And then we conquered ourselves.”
That is what happened. When I read Between the World and Me, I came away from the book certain that Ta-Nehisi Coates was one of the most important voices in America today. Everything I’ve read of his, from his articles in The Atlantic to We Were Eight Years in Power to The Water Dancer to Black Panther has only further served to solidify that point of view. Here he’s explaining something vitally important. How did Trump get elected in the first place? How did the MAGA mindset come to dominate the Republican Party? How did the Democrats find themselves so unable to beat that message at the polls in 2016 and 2018? We lost our way in the storm. We found shelter, an antidote for the chaos we felt swirling around us. We forgot. And then we conquered ourselves. On one side we became complacent, disconnected and didn’t see the strength of the systemic sin in which we live. On the other, there was so much fear, anxiety, and anger that we turned to Reality TV show huckster-turned-strongman politician to save what we felt we lost. And in that, we conquered ourselves.
That is not something Biden and Harris can fix in office. We have to hold on to the Dream in the face of chaos. We must remember what true freedom is and what it calls us to. That is something we, each of us, must find and fix within our own hearts. In issue #12, framed by the Power Elite (the shadowy forces representing systemic injustice) for a murder he didn’t commit and with the public’s faith crumbling around him, Steve Rogers turns to Sharon Carter – his love and constant support – in his frustration:
Steve – “Sharon, what do you want me to do? The world needs Captain America.”
Sharon – “No, Steve. You need Captain America. But Captain America is dead. These people have framed you five different ways. And we barely know who ‘these people’ are. Look, you’ve been gone a while. You’ve only seen what they wanted you to see. You don’t know what’s happened out there.”
Steve – “I…I do. Hydra broke something in this country. I thought Captain America could set it right. But there’s no ‘Captain’ without an ‘America’ that believes in him.”
Sharon – “Then perhaps what we need right now isn’t Captain America. Maybe what we need is Steve Rogers.”
Something is broken in this country. We, as individuals, must fix it. We, as individuals, are what’s needed when the myth is tarnished, when the narrative is skewed, and when all we believe in seems forsaken. Ideals only help when we give them life and strength through our actions. So Steve Rogers takes off his costume, gives his shield to Sharon for safekeeping, and sets off as himself to try and fix what’s broken.
Though we must act as individuals, we can’t do it alone. We must come together because it is only when we act together that we can create lasting change. Steve turns to the Daughters of Liberty – a group of female heroes Sharon’s a part of, including Tony Ho, Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird, Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman, Sue Storm/Invisible Woman, Misty Knight, Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow, Agatha Harkness, and Sharon Carter/the Dryad.
The fact that the entire team is women is important. In an empire flowing from patriarchal oppression, it has to be women who set things right. The voices and visions of the oppressed and the marginalized must take the reins or the systemic injustice will perpetuate. White men can’t fix what white men have sullied, at least not alone. Rather, they must listen to women, to people of color, to immigrants to find a vision to set things right. Steve admits to the Daughters of Liberty, “I get it now. Wounds don’t heal overnight. Some wounds never heal at all. And this country…this country that I swore to protect…this country is wounded and…listen…what I am trying to say is I need your help. I need a team.”
Bobbi tells Steve, “We’re as old as America. Older in some ways. Governments come and go, but the Dream…” And Sharon finishes, “The Dream is old. Older than Captain America. And that dream is what matters. Even if the shield is tarnished. Even if Captain America is tarnished…the Dream is eternal.”
This Dream, the American Dream, the idea of Liberty and Justice for All, is eternal. Today, on Inauguration Day, as the country has voted to redirect ourselves, we must consider this Dream. We lost sight of it. We conquered ourselves. But we’re trying to redirect. We’re trying to redeem the American Dream. These past four years have shown how far we can fall from our ideals. But our last 245 years of history have shown how far from reality the “for All” of the Dream has been. Again, Biden and Harris’ election is important. But it alone doesn’t bring redemption. It can’t. If the country, if the Dream, is to be redeemed we the people must be the ones to do it.
Steve’s first mission with the Daughters of Liberty is to stop a local militia, the Watchdogs, attacking migrant workers – most undocumented – along the border. As he defends them Steve thinks, “But I knew my heart. And I knew that before I was a soldier, I was an artist. So I knew about symbols and inspirations. What they mean to people yearning to believe in something more. ‘Redemption,’ Sharon said. Redemption. I didn’t like flouting the law. But the law could never redeem. Redemption could only come from the people. From the tired. The poor. The wretched. These huddled masses…the refuse of teeming shores. Yearning to breathe free.”
Look at the power and the truth in those words. If America is to be redeemed, our redemption – as a country and as a people – can only come at the hands of the tired, the poor, the wretched, these huddled masses, the refuse of teeming shores, yearning to breathe free. Do we ensure “Liberty and Justice for All” is truly guaranteed “for All”? Do we start to sincerely right the sins of our past?
A key part of this is seeking to understand and heal all that is broken within those who flocked to the MAGA mentality Trump personified. In issue #20, Cap, the Daughters of Liberty, Sam Wilson/Falcon, and Bucky Barnes/the Winter Solider begin to investigate Adamsville – a community run by the immortal vampire-esque Selene, who’s working with the Power Elite. The name Adamsville brilliantly evokes another would-be paradise. Adam was ejected from the Garden for eating from the one tree forbidden by God. In Christian theology, this was the Original Sin. It is well documented and discussed that systemic racism – a central tenant of the current fascist nationalism embraced among the MAGA set – is America’s original sin.
With Adamsville and the men who join the community, Coates is examining where the mentality that drives Trump’s supporters is born. He acknowledges the lies they believe but he also acknowledges the hate, pain, confusion, and fear that leads them to buy into those lies. It doesn’t excuse anything but it helps explain it. And that’s important.
The man – the white man, especially – is underscored here. Things were better in “the good ol’ days,” a vision that is always skewed of a past that never actually existed. But the longing is there and it’s born of despair felt in the here and now. No matter what evils these ideals may unlock, no matter how unforgivable true evil is, we must realize at the heart of every sin and sinner (ourselves included no matter where we may place ourselves on the scale of justice) are broken parts that need healing. Coates outlines some of the causes – churches (re: communities) gone, jobs lost, anxiety rising. In all that fear, in all that confusion we look for anything that may bring hope and sometimes we can be drawn into the intoxicating allure of a strongman, a bully, a would-be tyrant king. Because simple answers that show we’ve no responsibility for what happened, that we’ve been wronged, that those who took everything from us aren’t even like us is often reassuring. It is always a lie. But lies can be reassuring.
When Steve, Sam, and Bucky go undercover in Adamsville, on one of the farms, the realize the nebulous nature of what they’re facing:
Steve – “Well, these guys chose to be here, so there’s that. And I suspect what they’re getting is something we may not quite be able to name. But I bet it’s about this country, about change. They’re thinking of their fathers, the old union hall or firehouse. And working with your hands is such a ‘man’ thing, you know? At least that’s what we say. I gotta tell you, Adamsville isn’t even the first time I’ve even seen this. A while back I was in another town, and it was the same thing – this hunger for something old, something lost.”
Sam – “Yeah, miss me with that. A crowd like this, talking about bringing back the old days? Believe me, I know what comes with it.”
Steve – “A lie. That’s what comes with it. A big fat lie. That town I was in, it was a cover for manufactured nukes. So the question here is, what is Selene covering for? What is the lie?”
Bucky – “We don’t have to figure out all that to save Sharon.”
Steve – “No. We don’t. But we should. We’re the good guys, right? So what do we know?”
In my post from four years, I held Captain America up as a model for what we should strive for. How do we survive a Trump presidency? How do we weather what this unleashes in our nation? How do we deal with the evils his election gave a faux-sense of legitimacy to? How do we rededicate ourselves to the defense of Liberty and Justice for All? I think Captain America is just as important, in that same role, now. Ta-Nehisi Coates knows this. It is easy to turn a blind eye towards and the hatred and pain that fuels the MAGA ranks. It is easy to feel vindicated in the election and sit back and feel the angels of our better nature have prevailed. It’s easy to ignore that festering wounds in the heart of our country, feeling we’ve defeated it.
But ignoring it and justifying it in so many silent ways is what led to this explosion. For the last five years (election cycle included) we’ve seen an ever-increasing spotlight shine on the worst inside us, inside our country. But it wasn’t magically born when Trump took to the airwaves to campaign. He was the figure head of this toxicity, but he wasn’t its creator. It created him, and the movement that grew around him. So what would Captain America do? What do the good guys do? Figure out what’s broken and hurt in all those who were so passionately drawn to the MAGA mindset. I’ve no idea how to begin to have compassion-filled conversations with those who’ve completely abandoned facts for an alternative reality. But I know we have to try. That’s what heroes do. And if we really want to fix things and not just rejoice in an election victory, we need to become heroes ourselves.
This isn’t fixed by a new president. The ship can be redirected and that is HUGELY helpful. That means a lot. But this is only fixed by compassion, conversation, breaking down walls, and finding a way to let love transform. Again, I’m not sure exactly how we do this but I see the need to.
In the final pages of Captain America #21 Steve, Bucky, and Sam mount an assault on Selene in Adamsville. It is important to note that here, after over a dozen issues out of costume, Steve dons his Captain America uniform and carries his shield once more. This whole story has been about Steve trying to figure out how to make the people believe in Captain America again, believe in the shield, believe in the Dream. In trying to liberate those who have been corrupted by Selene and her rhetoric – men who she’s using to harvest their souls for her own lifeforce, men corrupted for her own selfish gains and then thrown away – Captain America comes back. This is how to return faith to Captain America, to the shield, and to the Dream – fighting the corruption and systemic evil seething inside our country while still trying to save those who have been touched by it. Wow. Just…wow. Ta-Nehisi Coates gives us the voice and the vision we all need now.
In the piece I wrote four years ago, I quoted from a Facebook post written by Barry Davis. Barry was a high school history teacher of mine and a man who has become a mentor and a dear friend over the years. It feels appropriate to quote him once more, this time form a post he wrote on 7 November 2020:
“Life is too short and too important to nurture hatreds. These past four years have taught us that we cannot take our rights and Government for granted, we need to be involved in all our governments, local, state and national, to protect for all peoples those unalienable rights that we hold so dear. We have to be on guard to protect those things we hold to be self-evident and insure that they are guaranteed to all peoples in our nation. That we become a nation under equal law, equal justice once again. I am reminded of an event during the writing of the Constitution. It was done in secret, behind locked doors and shuttered windows in Philadelphia. Those attending the debates concerning the formation of a government had to contend with opposing views of what the new nation needed to survive. During a break in the proceedings a lady, a Mrs. Powel, asked one of the Pennsylvania delegates, Dr. Benjamin Franklin a simple question.
“‘Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy?’ she asked.
“‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it.’
“Tonight, we have seen the democratic election system work as it did four years ago, but we have a new task ahead of us, to grow this Republic and make it one that is inclusive, welcoming and unafraid of change. Peace to you.”
The moment is here. No matter how we spent the last four years, a new day has dawned and a new chapter has begun. We must sure up our system of government, cherishing the rights and freedoms it gives us – A republic if you can keep it. We must prove ourselves the careful stewards of the American Dream, entrusted to us by those who came before, working to truly extend those rights and freedoms equally to all people. To do this, we can’t be complacent, simply accepting an election victory and the inauguration of a new president as a victory over the sins that shape us. We must seek to redeem the Dream, to give life to what we’ve paid lip service to for 245 years. Issue #15 ends with Steve talking to his lawyer Bernie Rosenthal. Before they part she warns him, “But Steve, listen, something really ugly is happening in this town. In this whole damn country. And I don’t think it’s the sort of thing you can save us from. We’re going to have to save ourselves.” Steve says, “Yeah, Bernie, but you know…who would I be if I didn’t try?” Today a new day dawns. Will we embrace our role in shaping it? Are we going to save ourselves, work to redeem the American Dream? Because who will we be if we don’t try?
7 thoughts on “Captain America and the Redemption of the America Dream”
Very well said!
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Thank you! It was one of those that I felt I “needed” to write (for myself)…wasn’t sure how it would come together…but I’m pleased with it in the end.
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You put it across very well indeed – super writing!
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Great piece, Michael! You always get to the heart of the matter.
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Thank you! I’d been trying to figure out how I wanted to write about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘Captain America’ (as there is SO MUCH to say since there is SO MUCH going on) and this ended up feeling like the perfect fit. I’m glad it worked!
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I love this line: Things were better in “the good ol’ days,” a vision that is always skewed of a past that never actually existed. But the longing is there and it’s born of despair felt in the here and now.
SO SO on point.
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Thank you! I think, as a writer, that’s one of the most exciting things to hear. You know? A “this line specifically” really clicked or resonated or landed kinda thing. It’s validating in a special way :).