By LK Shyaka (www.likamk.com)
Who is your favourite ‘big three’ Avenger? When I say big three I mean Ironman, Captain America or Thor. Without that I am sure we would all scream at the top of our lungs ‘Valkyrie!!’, or maybe that is just me. When you have decided on which muscle clad hero you choose, keep that in mind. My pick has always been Captain America, and while I may not always agree with his choices, Cap is someone moved by his values beyond anything else. I like to see myself in the same vein.
Now let me ask: What historical narrative do you subscribe to? Harder question for sure, but you may have already answered it. Each hero has a character journey that follows a historical narrative. These character narratives can explain a lot about how we structure our societies outside of the MCU. Let me explain what I mean by history as a narrative, and the epistemology we use to craft such narratives.
History as we believe it is a factual representation of the past. What has happened is history. To be more accurate history is a system of knowledge, and just like biology or anthropology that system has certain epistemological concerns. More often than not, how we envision the future demands a historical narrative that pushes, like a supernatural force, towards that future.
So what narratives does Cap have?
The Man Stuck in Time
Captain America does not change. How do I know? He says it. ‘People change, we don’t’. Consider his power set after the steroid cocktail. In a world of other worldly technology in Wakanda, T’Challa ,who could get him another suit or power gloves, gets him a rather mundane shield. Tony’s armor continually changes. It’s a progressive version of history. Thor loses and gains his hammer in almost every movie. His narrative is cyclical
Why is Cap my favourite avenger? Well Captain America’s narrative is equivalent to our modern political system, and through that society as a whole. A christian dominated society, it is no wonder Cap’s journey is a very christian conception of history as unchanging. The past as the goal is a Christian concept. Unlike older religions, the bible is concerned with ‘meaningful time’. The ideology is everywhere in the bible:
“What has been will be done again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
In this, the bible has all the answers because nothing ever changes. If nothing new ever changes the problems we face are the same, the characters we face are similar so the solutions we need are in our history. Not specifically American even, every society conceives of history this way. Born out of Christian Europe, how we arrange different societies since colonialism at least shares this view. Almost in your face, Cap is literally named after these nation states, and so shares the same views on history as unchanging. The entirety of the American political spectrum acts the same. They all believe in history as static. It is not that things never change, but that our focus, our goals, lie in a past ideal. We see that in “Make America Great Again” but also in “The Green New Deal.” Each uses a past to propose a future. And this is the problem.
I Am Not Your Negro
America specifically, but the world generally subscribes to the Captain America/Christian concept of history as static. But it isn’t just about the past. James Baldwin, the legendary American writer, puts it best:
“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”
In a world where history is unchanging that means identities, frames of reference, literally all the forms of constructing society are stuck not to change. Such ideology creates the bedrock for racism in western society, both explicit in systems of structural racism and implicit as unconscious bias. And personally I don’t even think it’s malicious. Let me give one example.
When Europeans came to Africa they met tribes like the Maasai, a mostly nomadic group with little in the way of political centralization or systems of civilization Europeans could understand. They also came to Benin, a centralized and prosperous empire. The city of Benin held the largest earthworks pre-mechanical age in the world, as well as a level of mathematics in urban planning known as ‘fractal design’ that Europe had not even known about. In 1897 a British army came to Benin City and burnt it to the ground. This is the malicious part.
I attended school for over twenty years! I’ve taken history based courses from kindergarten to master level, in the West and in Africa. The first time I ever heard about Benin City was on YouTube from the guy who wrote “A Fault in Our Stars” (I encourage everyone to watch Crash Course). Now is there some nefarious scheme to hide this history? To some extent sure, but many of my teachers were just as surprised to learn this as I was! The reality is no one taught them either.
The problem with telling that story is that then we have to grapple with why Britain was there, what was their goal? There is no revisiting history in a ‘Cap’ system of history. Conservatism likes to keep its patriotic history, liberalism replaces patriotism with self aggrandised moral cleansing. Each stole the agency of non-European descended groups.
Growing up a skinny black kid, I got a lot of world vision jokes. This bothered me. But nothing like the “Africans are all hut dweller jokes” Why? Well, I have been to Africa. I’d seen skyscrapers and phones, and all the other things people said we did not have. It was so false, it was infuriating. But could I blame them? That’s what they were taught. Infantilized by history, even as we can admit the horror of events it does nothing to remove the racist depictions of t’the other’ because we are supporting characters in human history.
These are just some examples of how. I could do this all day!
‘Truth, Love & Justice’
It is in no one’s political interest to tell the story of non-European descendants. What value can you have of a peoples if you don’t even know where they come from? For that matter, what value can they have in themselves? Working for an education non-profit, I saw how misrepresentation can affect outcomes directly. Talking to a black student about our common heritage, he sneered “I’m not African in Canada.” I’m no booty scratcher’. It’s not hyperbole to say those without a past have no future, and the results show for themselves. Every black boy I knew there wanted to play basketball or rap as a future (very different from other ethnicities). Failed by the education system, generations of black kids have failed to see the value in their identities.
Whether you are racist or anti-racist, you are subscribing specifically to a white narrative of history. Baked in with the same narratives. One that removes agency from non European descended groups. Like Captain America, a history guided by ideals would look, not to place blame or to idolise European actors, but to search for love , truth and justice. Ideals I stole from the real world Captain America, Frederick Douglass. In practice this means focusing more on histories devoid of European actors. We can’t bring back those lost to oppressive histories, but maybe we can avenge them.