Captain America crowns his head with a turban. His long beard stops just above the star on his red, white, and blue uniform. He shields and protects from hate crime.
You may find him in the thickets of protest — like the Women’s March on Washington. You may also find him among crowds he may not agree with — engaging in kind conversation at the Republican National Convention 2016. With shield in hand and a powerful stance, he's ready to fight hate with his words, his art, and his performance.
Captain America is Sikh.
And the man behind this new iteration of the comic book star, Vishavjit Singh, 45, is redefining what it means to be an American superhero.
“The original Captain America fought Nazis,” Singh said. “I thought, ‘Why can’t Captain America have an untrimmed beard and fight hate crime?’”
Singh, a software engineer turned full-time cartoonist and activist, said his persona came to him partly by accident in the likeliest place — while exhibiting his cartoons at New York Comic-Con.
The mother of a young “blonde kid” informed Singh that his poster — “Let’s kick some intolerant ass, it’s just a turban” — was his favorite. At that moment, Singh said he began to realize his art was on to something that transcended race, creed, color, and religion.
Identity is often assigned based on the physical: When you wear your beliefs externally, you are seen, even if you don’t want to be. Singh began understanding the power and vulnerability of his visibility long before he donned his Captain America costume.
Born in Washington, D.C., Singh grew up in a culturally Indian-Sikh family. Both in America and in India, where they moved shortly after he was born, Singh’s family wore the full regalia of Sikhism and practiced the tradition of growing their hair. But Singh says they never practiced the religion.
“What was interesting is that you don’t become Sikh by being born into the family. It’s obviously something that you have to practice,” Singh said.
Deeply tied to Singh’s spirit are his thoughts about justice and equality. They are not only ideals of the Sikh faith and intertwined in his spiritual practice, but a natural state of being for Singh — especially since he started his Captain America performance art.
“My connection to Sikhism fuels my compassion," said Singh.
His roots of justice also grow out of a strong personal understanding of discrimination — sometimes spread thickly from one country to another.
In 1984, Singh was a young boy growing up in India’s capital city of New Delhi. It was during this time when Indira Ghandi, India’s prime minister, was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, both Sikh. The people were outraged and took out most of their anger by violently rioting and killing more than 2,700 Sikh people in New Delhi alone.
“The mob came to my house on Nov. 1, 1984,” Singh said. “We were somehow able to get away, but others in my community were not that lucky. They perished just because they looked Sikh.”
Neighbors took him in and looked after him while the pogrom happened. Singh and his family escaped the violence soon after.
This was only the first wave. After his return to the U.S during his teenage years, the discrimination continued.
During Singh’s early 20s, the laughter and taunting against his turban led Singh to take drastic measures.
“I did not want to stand out anymore. I did not want to identify with Sikhism; I took off my turban and cut my hair,” he said.
In the Sikh practice, hair is considered sacred. It is a natural connection and extension of the body. It is said that in meditation, the connection with the spirit goes through every part of the body — including every single hair follicle. Cutting it off means losing a part of your body.
For Singh, the physical identity of being Sikh was not essential until he learned the spiritual practice and faith behind it.
“That’s where it becomes important to have a spiritual connection. The turban becomes a cultural artifact if it’s not tied to your spirit,” he said.
A few years later, he fell in love with Sikhism again — this time not because of its cultural and familial ties, but through melody and literature.
“Every Sikh prayer is set to raga [song] and that’s how I discovered what spirituality and faith meant to me, through that,” Singh said.
One month after he twisted his long hair into a turban again, the Twin Towers fell.
Islamophobia grew rampant in the years following 9/11 — and along with it grew a common conflation of Sikhism with Islam. Singh said he did not step outside for weeks.
“When I came out, they flipped me off and told me to go home, but it was during that that I saw a cartoon game called 'Find the Terrorist' by Mark Flore flipping the Sikh terrorist narrative. My predicament was being captured, and I knew he wasn’t going to create another Sikh cartoon, so I had to do it.”
And he did. Singh began normalizing Sikhs in American society by drawing cartoons of Sikh men and women fighting everyday discrimination by simply living life in the U.S. He called the project “Sikhtoons.”
Singh’s art became a part of his activism. He realized the necessity of a Sikh superhero after a 40-year-old white man shot and killed six people at a Sikh gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wis., in 2012. Singh knew his identity was needed to stop the hate. Soon after, he fully stepped into the role of Captain America.
“We have to see that light that exists in everyone. That’s our spiritual challenge. How do we see that light in someone else even if they harm you? I need to see that.
“They can keep their hate; I will not connect to it.”