Captain America’s black history

Captain America's movie origins involve being the subject of experiments by a kindly German doctor who escaped Nazi barbarism. It is a well-known fact that the Nazis performed atrocious experiments on human beings (injecting people's eyes to turn them blue or freezing them to death to see how long it took).

But it is less well known that when the Nazis were prosecuted for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials in 1946, they quoted US experiments on human beings as part of their defence. In 1942 US Army and Navy doctors infected 400 prisoners in Chicago with malaria in experiments designed to “get a profile of the disease and develop a treatment for it.”

Most of the inmates were black and none were informed of the risks of the experiment. The infamous Tuskegee experiment where black men were left with untreated syphilis but told they were being treated to see what would happen began in 1932 – long before The Second World War. It only ended in 1972 because one of the white staff developed a conscience.

In the 2003 Captain America comic series Truth, Marvel comics revealed that the first Captain America was a black man called Isaiah Bradley. In a case of art imitating life, the scientists had perfected the super-soldier serum on black troops before trying the improved version on white soldiers. This fantasy reflects a past reality.

J Marion Sims the so-called father of gynaecology developed the vaginal speculum in the 1840's. It is a hidden fact that he forcibly inserted spoons and knives into the vaginas of imprisoned African women against their will for years. He performed hundreds of operations on them without anaesthetic until when he had perfected his tool, he moved onto white women and became rich and famous.

Captain America takes certain liberties with history as we see black and white troops serving together. This did not happen in the real world. The US army was segregated and white troops were known for racially abusing black soldiers and lynching them. This happened in England as portrayed in the documentary, The Other American Invasion.

Ironically the black soldier, Gabe, is played by Derek Luke. Luke is the main actor in Spike Lee's Miracle at Santa Anna (to be shown at BFI Southbank on November 5). The movie which was never released here, tells the story of the all black 92nd Infantry and their heroic exploits in Italy where white officers would often send them on suicide missions.

As far as evil Nazi scientists torturing people to death but being halted by heroic, blue- eyed, blond American soldiers – it is maybe unsurprising that the movie does not mention that in 1946 US President Truman launched Operation Paperclip.

This meant that US troops were sent to concentration camps like Dachau and Auschwitz to rescue and protect the very same evil Nazi scientists who had used white and black slave labour and experimented on humans.

Werner Von Braun is the most famous. He worked at the Mittelwerk complex where more than 20,000 people were slave-worked to death. Kurt Brome tested Sarin nerve gas on Auschwitz prisoners. Both were given refuge in America and Von Braun went on to work on the Saturn V rocket for NASA.

At this point it is worth mentioning that the perverse techniques of experimentation, cataloguing and slave labour had been rehearsed on African bodies in the first genocide of the 20th century. It was visited upon the Herero and Nama people of Namibia in 1907 where a certain Dr Mengele began his career.

The US habit for experimenting on black people was still evident in the 1970s when the mostly black prisoners at Holmesburg prison found themselves subject to skin hardening tests, acid baths and having their testicles transferred. The experiments were sponsored by Dow Chemical (Agent Orange), Johnson & Johnson and the US Army.

There is an interesting connection with another black superhero. In the Marvel comic world Luke Cage was a black prisoner who was subjected to experimentation with a variant of the super soldier serum as used on Captain America. The experiment gave Cage super strength and super hard skin and he became Power Man.

There is also an entire African country that features heavily in Captain America's history. When he picks up his shield from Iron Man's father he is told it is made from the rarest metal on earth, vibranium.

In the Marvel universe vibranium can only be found in the highly technologically advanced African Kingdom of Wakanda. Wakanda has never been colonised but sells its high tech to the outside world. It is ruled by the first ever African Superhero…the Black Panther.

One of Captain America's first World War Two missions was to go to Wakanda and secure vibranium for the USA. This led to a fight with the Black Panther who solidly beat Captain America and sent him home! Perhaps this will be the theme of the inevitable sequel.

Related Links

Dr. J. Marion Sims Medical Experiments on Enslaved Women and Children