At first glance, this may seem like a silly discussion. After all, how can one of the world’s most significant social justice leaders compare to a comic book hero? What possibly could Frederick Douglass, a 19th century African-American reformer, orator, writer and statesman, have in common with a 20th century patriotically themed superhero who fought America’s villains during the Cold War?
Interestingly, we currently find one man continuing the fight for social justice wearing a Captain America costume and invoking the spirit of Frederick Douglass on the streets of New York City. Let’s take a look at the work of Vishavjit Singh in New York City:
In this video, we see a man following his convictions and passionately setting out to make a difference. Vishavjit Singh randomly interviews people on the street about Sikh stereotypes and the match or mismatch to how Captain America might appear. While Frederick Douglass did not walk the streets of New York in costume, he did join the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Hundred Conventions project and toured the United States for six months and eventually spoke all over the country and in Ireland and Britain.
As Black History Month begins, I wanted to take a moment and acknowledge that Frederick Douglass’ spirit is alive and well in many places throughout the United States and the world. And yes, sometimes in the most curious places and in the most colorful ways. Let’s briefly take a look at the following three important themes in Douglass and Singh’s work: (1) stereotypes, (2) tolerance and (3) border crossings.
Both Singh and Douglass moved past stereotypical assumptions made by those who did not know them well.
Frederick Douglass, an incredibly gifted orator and writer, stood as a living contradiction to what many slave owners believed to be a race of people who lacked the intellectual ability to be free American citizens. Even though his autobiography became an immediate bestseller and received positive reviews, skeptics questioned whether a Black man could produce such a powerful piece of writing.
“The mind does not take its complexion from the skin”. ~Frederick Douglass
Many of the individuals interviewed by Singh were asked about his physical stature and if he could be a good representation of Captain America. He also asked where one might think he was from and inquired about other Sikh stereotypes. While Singh was quoted in the Huffington Post to say, “I was nervous and apprehensive about how people would respond to my presence in costume. I was stunned by the incredible reception from hundreds of New Yorkers and tourists.” Nevertheless, the short video reveals one ignorant person and other youtube videos reveal many more.
Social justice work is just as important in the 21st century as it was in the 19th century.
Frederick Douglass was very progressive for his time. He advocated for equal rights for all people, including African-Americans, women, Native American and immigrants. In a 1855 Anti-Slavery speech he said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” Douglass’ vision of social justice extended past the end of slavery to include equal rights for all American peoples no matter race, gender or immigration status.
“This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences”. ~Captain America
Singh’s Captain America editorial cartoon and street interviews are a modern day example of Douglass’ work. Referring to the short documentary he is creating featuring Singh and his character, Matthew Rogers stated, “I see America on the whole becoming more aware of cultural and religious prejudice. The idea that Captain America and other superheroes ‘have to be white men’ is a dated way of thinking. It’s time for America to be represented in the media like the melting pot it is.” Where I do not believe that America is the melting pot that Rogers describes, I do agree that most Americans have a limited idea of what Captain America would look like.
Kudos to Vishavjit Singh for questioning assumptions and presenting anomalies in the minds of those he interviewed on the streets of New York City. This, indeed, is a very effective way of teaching tolerance and acceptance. While his interviews may make a difference for one person at a time, Rogers’ documentary will reach a much larger audience and allow for significant future conversations about tolerance in America.
Both Douglass and Singh have extended their discussions about social justice beyond geographic boundaries to tackle borders that relate to issues of power, ethnicity, race, language, and social class, among others.
Frederick Douglass travelled all over the world speaking in favor of social justice for all. Douglass was an especially gifted orator and had a gift for speaking to diverse audiences and gaining their support. Although he did not endorse the nomination, Frederick Douglass was chosen as the vice presidential running mate of Victoria Woodhull representing a newly formed Equal Rights Party. He was especially known for his support for women’s suffrage.
“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.” ~Frederick Douglass at the Seneca Falls Convention
Vishavjit Singh has crossed borders by taking his portrayal of Captain America outside of liberal New York City and is currently visiting other cities in costume, as well as publishing an editorial cartoon. I hope that organizations like NAME (National Association for Multicultural Education) and iMCI (International Multicultural Institute) will recognize Singh’s work and invite him to their conferences. Often, religious intolerance takes a back seat to other issues that these organizations address.
Today is the start of the 2015 Black History Month celebration. Learning about the contributions African Americans have made to American history in their struggles for freedom and equality, deepens our understanding of America’s history. As Kutztown University Frederick Douglass Director, I began to tweet and post important and interesting facts about significant American History events last night. When I saw a facebook post about a Sikh Captain America making a difference on the streets of New York City, I couldn’t resist to take the time to watch the video..
So, why acknowledge Vishavjit Singh and a Sikh Captain America now? Abolitionists, suffragists, journalists and others discovered Frederick Douglass during his own time but many today do not know of Douglass’ significance. I strongly believe that the life and writings of Frederick Douglass are a shining light in our nation’s history and provide an exemplary example of how to bridge issues of social justice, race, gender and ethnicity. When I saw Singh’s unique approach and his passion to make a difference, I saw the spirit of Frederick Douglass as expressed by a young man in a Captain America costume.
For more ideas about how to connect the life and writings of Frederick Douglass to current issues, take a look at Sanelli, Maria & Rodriquez, Louis. eds. (2012), Teaching about Frederick Douglass: A Resource Guide for Teachers of Cultural Diversity.