WUOMFM

Sikh Captain America taking to the streets to combat intolerance

Jan 26, 2016

Vishavjit Singh as Sikh Captain America in New York City.
Credit Fiona Aboud

Since 1941, Captain America has been a symbol of American identity, and it continues to be for Vishavjit Singh.

Singh has traveled the country dressed as Captain America, but he's put a Sikh spin on the iconic character: his Captain sports a turban and a long beard.

Featured in Salon and various media around the country, Singh’s Captain has taken the online world by storm.

He’s visiting Ann Arbor for the South Asian Awareness Network conference, a student-run conference at the University of Michigan to promote leadership among South Asian students.

Check out Singh as Sikh Captain America on the streets of New York:

Singh tells us it all started with a tragedy and a cartoon.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Singh tells us he faced a lot of discrimination based on his appearance. He worked from home for a few weeks after the attacks just to avoid going outside where he faced “near-unanimous animosity from fellow Americans,” he says. “Good people, young and old, who were confused.”

Political cartoonist Mark Fiore’s response to the wave of hate that followed the 9/11 attacks inspired Singh to start drawing cartoons of his own. Singh’s work focuses on political, social, economic, and religious developments in the Sikh community worldwide. But Sikh Captain America wasn’t born until Singh attended his first New York Comic Con five years ago.

The first Captain America movie had just come out, and Singh tells us he thought iterating on the character’s likeness would help draw some attention to his work.

“Somehow this vision came in. I’m going to create a new Captain America with a turban and a beard who’s going to fight hate crimes, who’s going to fight intolerance,” he says. “I only created a couple of posters, this was going to be like a marketing image for my booth, and people loved it.”

At first, Singh was against the idea of dressing up as the character. He tell us he’s always been a really skinny guy and in a lot of ways struggles with body image issues, so he “just could not fathom” dressing himself as a superhero.

After the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Milwaukee, Singh wrote an op-ed piece for the Seattle Times making the case that America could use a new superhero. He realized it was time to “get out of my own way” and introduce the world to a real-life Sikh Captain America.

Over the last two and a half years, Singh has traveled the country with the costume, appearing on streets and at conventions.

What’s his super power? “Altering perceptions. That’s what I try to do. As human beings – not just Americans, as human beings – we’re kind of wired to have snap judgments, to box each other. Those are two-dimensional observations,” Singh says.

“My hope is that when people see me and they make a lot of assumptions that I just kind of short circuit those assumptions, and then maybe they’ll come and have a conversation with me.”

Singh tells us he was afraid that people would react negatively to seeing him dressed as Captain America. But between hugs from strangers, pictures taken with police officers, New York fire officials offering to let him take pictures in their truck and being pulled into weddings and professional photo shoots, Singh tells us the experience has been exactly the opposite of what he feared.

“I’ve heard from strangers all over the U.S.," he says. "Acting serving members in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans of wars who have told me, 'We love what you’re doing. Your vision of Captain America is what America is all about.'”

The character has also given Singh a great opportunity to explain the Sikh religion and culture to everyday Americans.

“Some of the fundamental things about the Sikh faith is, it’s very young. It’s about 500 years old. Comes from the Far East land of Buddhism and Hinduism. And it has some really interesting and beautiful precepts. You know, we’re all created equal. We all sort of have this light in our hearts, basically an energy that permeates the entire universe. So we might have different roads and journeys … but pretty much have the same essence, that energy that resonates inside our hearts.”

Singh tells us he has a lot of projects in mind for Sikh Captain America both in New York and across the U.S. He says he can’t give away any details now, but he encourages us to keep our eyes on the news over the next year.

“I’m hoping to kind of create a little buzz, connect with people, because I know there are a lot of Americans out there who are equally concerned” Singh says. “We all want to see America do really well. … So we collectively, I feel, can make America greater, and not just some single presidential candidate having slogans saying ‘OK, I’m going to make this place great.’ I think it’s all of us collectively working together. That’s what’s going to make it happen.”

- Ryan Grimes, Stateside