Approaching whiteness in slash via Marvel Cinematic Universe's Sam Wilson

JSA Lowe

[0.1] Abstract—This essay articulates the privilege of being a white writer within fandom and addresses the importance of Sam Wilson as a specifically black character in considering the author's own status as a disabled queer woman.

[0.2] Keywords—Critical race theory; Fan fiction

Lowe, JSA. 2019. "Approaching Whiteness in Slash in Marvel Cinematic Universe's Sam Wilson." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

[0.3] This is not a thought experiment. America is literally unimaginable…without the organizing principle of whiteness as citizenship.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (2018)

[0.4] This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

—James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1955)

1. A sort of question

[1.1] My unswerving devotion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's character Sam Wilson began without warning, just like any other fandom "origin story," as Mel Stanfill (2018) has called them: I walked into a movie theater as one person, and walked out another. My theater companion was too perceptive not to notice my starry-eyed euphoria after Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)—a movie that I promptly saw again the next day, in spite of complaining to her, "I can't have another ship!" Her expression was knowing as she replied, "Looks like it's a little too late for that." And thus my first Marvel ship became Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). The characters met cute on the Washington Mall, followed by an intensely personal conversation about being veterans of war, Sam's unquestioning sheltering of Steve and Natasha Romanoff when they have to flee S.H.I.E.L.D., and his waiting beside Steve's hospital bed as he sleeps. Through all of this, the two men have fabulous chemistry—and, at least as far as I was concerned, flirted outrageously throughout the whole film.

Color screen cap from the 2014 film 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' of the characters of Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers smiling at each other as they stand in a hallway at the VA prominently featuring patriotic imagery on the walls, including a poster set between them with the words, 'You Fought for Us, We Fight for You' superimposed over an American flag. Behind Steve is a color drawing of a bald eagle.

Figure 1. Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers at the Veterans Administration in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Screen cap by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw.

[1.2] Another element of Sam's character called to me, though—not just his potential as part of a pairing, but also his traumatic past. For I am an American living with a disability. I have PTSD, in addition to several other clinical diagnoses. I go everywhere accompanied by my psychiatric service-dog partner, I am regularly hospitalized, and I will probably be in treatment for the rest of my life. Because I am also a white queer cisgendered woman, it might seem strange that I immediately cathected Sam Wilson, a black man whose deep loyalty both to service and to Steve Rogers is without question. When Steve visits Sam at the VA and overhears him addressing other military veterans, something in me resonated at the same frequency: beyond Mackie's to-be-looked-at-ness (per film theorist Laura Mulvey) or Wilson's compelling comic book qualities, the character spoke to me directly. When Sam Wilson states that there are memories one must choose to leave behind in order to go forward, I believed him, as if he were someone who knew exactly what that entails. Sam seemed to emanate the calm awareness of someone who has entered fire and come out the other side after great suffering and hard inner work. The character's depiction approached a level of verisimilitude for me that I wasn't expecting from a superhero film.

[1.3] You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I couldn't find nearly as many fan works celebrating Sam Wilson as I hoped, and those I did find were frustratingly inadequate to my needs. His unwavering loyalty to Captain America is certainly a defining feature of his character, but it's not his only trait; Sam is also intelligent, dry-witted, and charming, though under duress he does lose his cool. Fan fiction featuring Sam seemed divided into two approaches, neither of which I found satisfying. Most frequently, fan writers seem to take advantage of his background in social work and that same generally calm demeanor and press him into employment as the Avengers' free therapist. That the Avengers all desperately need therapy isn't the issue; it's that Sam Wilson then becomes sidelined as support for various traumatized characters (Coker and Pande 2018). While I was grateful to see Sam in fan fiction at all, this limited role wasn't exactly what I had in mind.

[1.4] The other popular instantiation of Sam presented him in an oddly race-blind way: he might be shipped with Steve Rogers and thus take on a major role in the story, but the texture of description in the writing overlooked or purposely ignored his identity as a person of color to the point where he seemed almost translucent. In otherwise meticulously crafted fiction, while Steve's physical beauties are vividly enumerated, even lingered over, Sam's skin, hair, eyes, features, and voice are often never even mentioned. Apparently fearful of fetishizing him, writers instead effaced him almost out of existence. Given fans' passion for in-depth physical descriptions and sensory details, this gaping absence puzzled me. Mackie's distinctively African American Vernacular English line readings are a major part of the character's charm. Sam Wilson is both visibly and audibly African American, especially surrounded as he is by very white characters.

[1.5] I could feel the lure of either position in my own fannish affect; one of my tags on Tumblr has long been "Sam Wilson is better than you," because frankly I felt that he was. His recovery from trauma seemed aspirational and, in some ways, out of reach. Perhaps some writers lionize him out of fear of rendering him flawed. By now the wince-worthy faux pas of describing dark skin using food metaphors is common knowledge enough for most readers of any race to laugh at those who commit it. Yet slash writers are otherwise driven to take risks, at least certain kinds of risks, in their writing. Generally they do not shy away from lavish, even abject, levels of physical detail; thus (primarily white) writers either turn away from his blackness or are unable to see him as he is—what Caliban, in Aimé Césaire's 1985 A Tempest, calls "the privilege of nothingness" (28). When Ta-Nehisi Coates (2018) states that the national identity is unimaginable without the condition of whiteness as belonging, this imprimatur extends to the slash body, predicated as it is on bodies more like those of Steve Rogers.

2. In lieu of an answer

[2.1] I was arriving at the conclusion of every fan writer who came before me. If I wanted a serious, reflective, thorough, granular investigation of Sam Wilson and how he became who he was, I would have to write it myself. The repeated omission of his fundamental blackness couldn't be overlooked—or at least I was not able to overlook it, and as we know, the problem with not being able to ignore something is that then one is called from theory to praxis, as Toni Morrison (1992) discusses in the shift in perception vis-à-vis the absence and/or depiction of black characters:

[2.2] My early assumptions as a reader were that black people signified little or nothing in the imagination of white American writers. […] This was a reflection, I thought, of the marginal impact that blacks had on the lives of the characters in the work as well as the creative imagination of the author. To imagine or write otherwise, to situate black people throughout the pages and scenes of a book like some government quota, would be ludicrous and dishonest. But then I stopped reading as a reader and began to read as a writer. […] I came to realize the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive, an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity. It requires hard work not to see this. […] What became transparent were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence. (15–17)

[2.3] I did not want to be a white writer whose transformative works suffered such a "choked representation." Nor did I wish to fall into the category of those doing "hard work not to see this," devoting considerable rhetorical acrobatics to arguing away my failure to pair or even include characters of color. Any time I have chosen, however unconsciously, to wave away reality, it has always been to my own harm and that of those with less privilege. To attempt a remedy would not be an onerous task. I wondered if I would be able to write Sam Wilson, and what he might say or do in the event that I tried to depict him with attention and craft.

[2.4] The other concept that kept resurfacing as I thought about making such an attempt was that of the Derridean trace. As Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak describes it in her translator's preface to Derrida's Of Grammatology, "Derrida's trace [erasure] is the mark of the absence of a presence, an always already absent present, of the lack of the origin that is the condition of thought and experience" (1998, xvii). Sam's strangely pellucid appearances in slash seemed bounded by precisely this kind of function. His racelessness was the absence of a presence, a curious sort of originary lack repeatedly pushing him, even when ostensively given half the attention, into the blur of background. Again, though, slash writers are usually particularly gifted at pulling what is disregarded into sharper focus; as Spivak remarks, "The bricoleur makes do with things that were meant perhaps for other ends" (xix). In the case of Sam Wilson (whose version in the comics later becomes Captain America himself), he was clearly meant to be as rich, densely textured, and full-bodied a character as his on-screen counterparts. I thought he deserved to be written as such.

[2.5] Everything crystallized for me one night at a dance club when a friend darted into the swirling crowd to rescue a fallen beer bottle, afraid someone would step on it, while the rest of us did nothing. As I watched her, I thought, in that distanced way writers have, "That's something Sam Wilson would have done." Nearly ninety thousand words later, I still have not finished figuring out what Sam Wilson would have done or why he might have done it. It turns out, though, that after one watches half a dozen documentaries on Air Force pararescuemen, one learns that Sam's service record is far more impressive than any of the regular human Avengers' training. Parajumpers endure years of demanding physical and mental preparation, and they daily perform some of the most grueling rescues known to the armed forces. I had also become a fan of the military sci-fi program Stargate: Atlantis (2004–9), one of whose main characters, John Sheppard, is an Air Force officer and helicopter pilot. It felt instinctive to pair the two: both served in Afghanistan and lost friends in combat; both are orphans; both their universes are set in the present day. I found myself curious about what might happen if the two men met in the summer of 2014, after the events of Stargate: Atlantis and Winter Soldier.

[2.6] In approaching this project I had several goals, primary among them to write, as a white gay woman, a black gay man in a way that read as convincing and unforced. I wanted his career as a social worker and his military background to be intrinsically a part of him in the same way that his maleness or his blackness would be—not something a reader could isolate or a writer could excise, but rather something woven through his entire character and mode of being, yet also without solely defining him. "Difference," Derrida states, "cannot be thought without the trace" (1978, 57). I thought that to create (or be created by) such a trace would be like the visual artifact of a moving light source that convinces us we see a line instead of a point. Veteris vestigia flammae, Virgil wrote, describing Dido's pyre: "traces of an ancient flame." What remains—what perdures, what is remnant—can point us back along its path toward what is, and possibly to what could be. I decided that even if a recovered Sam Wilson began a relationship with a recently traumatized white career officer, he couldn't be used as an emotional can opener; each character needed to have his own story and his own resources to be used toward solving his own problems. I wanted the point of view to switch back and forth between chapters, and because I also wanted to be ruthlessly quantitative as a way of ensuring that Sam wouldn't slip unnoticed into the background, I made a spreadsheet to track the word count of each chapter. Finally, I wanted to explore my own PTSD diagnosis, my treatments, and my recovery through both characters' stories.

[2.7] None of this is in any way revolutionary, or shouldn't be, but it has been a revelatory struggle for me nonetheless. The driving intersectional questions have been less "Can the subaltern speak?" and more "How many adverbs is the subaltern allowed to use before my beta cuts him off?" Against a hundred episodes of Stargate: Atlantis, there exists only approximately half an hour of Sam Wilson's time on screen, so I ransacked the comics for more of his origin story. The bricoleur, says Derrida, quoting Claude Lévi-Strauss, "is someone who uses 'the means at hand,' that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary" (1978, 290).

[2.8] Sam Wilson and John Sheppard therefore have become repositories, bricolaged simulacra of people I know, from military servicemen and servicewomen in documentary films to fictional characters, including other versions of themselves from well-known fan fiction. Au fond, though, I am drawn to telling my own story—the story of how any person repairs his or her intrinsic eidos after trauma, which is to say a disruptive, violent breach of the self. Trauma, psychologist Bessel van der Kolk (2002) tells us, overtakes our normal coping capacities and can be defined as that which "comes to dominate how victims organize their lives," while psychiatrist Jon Allen puts it thus: "The bottom line of trauma is overwhelming emotion and a feeling of utter helplessness" (2008, 22). Trauma researcher Judith Herman has a similar definition, one focused on that loss of agency: "Psychological trauma is an affiliation of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. […] Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning. Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life" (1992, 33).

[2.9] Intersectionally speaking, I have more in common with my partially inherited, partially concocted version of Sam Wilson than with other source-text Marvel characters. In a work of fiction, the two characters can stand eternally on either side of the divide, both wounded and healed, forever disabled and forever able, because the beauty of fiction is that, as with any other dramatic agon, the writer-reader need not pick a side. The stichomythia of two characters as they argue remains intact for other participants in the rhetorical practice to investigate. My only task, and one I have tried hard to adhere to, was to set my unexamined biases and privilege aside as much as possible so the story could fight its way through.

[2.10] Inevitably I failed. I won't recount the Beckett quotation that has become an Instagrammed bromide to soothe our humiliations. Yet I want those humiliations to stand. As a white person with privilege, I want every single time I have been in error, and been fortunate enough to have that error pointed out to me, to ring out for as long as possible, like a struck tuning fork. While it still sounds, I can locate the trace and track back along it to an originary lack, that primitive source of deferred deférrance, and investigate it. The wretchedly uncomfortable hot sting of guilt is as vitally necessary as the flashlight bobbing in the darkness ahead. After a long time, and after a great deal of practice in therapy, even as flawed and discursive an organism as a traumatized human being can learn to approach a negative stimulus rather than avoid it. Moving toward the cue rather than away from it thus becomes an additional layer in the transformative nature of our creative work. Moving toward Sam Wilson with interest, curiosity, affection, and respect has been important to me, not simply as a fan author but also as a white and disabled thinker and scholar—and as a broken, learning human being.

3. References

Allen, Jon G. 2008. Coping with Trauma: Hope through Understanding. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Césaire, Aimé. 1985. A Tempest. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2018. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: Random House.

Coker, Cait, and Rukmini Pande. 2018. "Not So Star-Spangled: Examining Race, Privilege and Problems in MCU's Captain America Fandom." In The Darker Side of Slash Fan Fiction: Essays on Power, Consent and the Body, edited by Ashton Spacey, 97–114. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." In Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, 278–94. London: Routledge.

Herman, Judith. 1992. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books.

Morrison, Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakavorty. 1998. Translator's preface to Of Grammatology (1967), by Jacques Derrida, ix–lxxxvii. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stanfill, Mel. 2018. "The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Mel Stanfill and Anne Jamison (Pt. 1)." Confessions of an Aca-Fan (Henry Jenkins's blog), April 18, 2018.

van der Kolk, Bessel A. 2002. "In Terror's Grip: Healing the Ravages of Trauma." Cerebrum, January 1, 2002.