(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Captain Blackman centers on the experiences of the African American soldier throughout history. Abraham Blackman is a symbol for all African Americans who had served their country. Although it opens on the battlefield of Vietnam, the novel quickly becomes an epic. Blackman has chosen to act as a decoy to draw enemy fire in an effort to save the other members of his squad. Hit by multiple rounds of mortar fire, Blackman soon slips into unconsciousness. In this state, he enters a complex series of dreams. The first places him in the Revolutionary War alongside such historical figures as Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, and Prince Estabrook. Although the battles Blackman finds himself engaged in last for days in his dream, in reality they are only minutes long. The actual time span of the novel is a few days, even though the dream sequences cover almost two hundred years of American military history.

There are no abrupt transitions between real time and dream time. A military historian, Blackman dreams of the wars he covers in his black military history seminar. The last thought that had entered his head before he was wounded was what he had told his company in class the previous day, that he wanted no heroes in his squad, that what they were doing as soldiers was no different from what Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, and others had done. Thus it was natural that Blackman’s dreams would be set in a historical context.

Williams adeptly intersperses Blackman’s dreams within...

(The entire section is 613 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel opens tensely and excitingly with Captain Blackman pinned down, perhaps fatally, by enemy AK-47 machine-gun fire in Vietnam. When his squad blunderingly attempts a rescue, Blackman heroically “thrust[s] his six-four frame skyward” to fire his own weapon and warn his men away from ambush, a gesture that is contradictory (since he has forbidden his own troops such actions) and, ironically, futile (since, as he notes much later in the book, several of the squad die anyway in a subsequent rocket attack back at base camp).

Wounded severely, if not mortally, Blackman finds himself “as in a dream” transported to revolutionary times in America, in an authorial parallel to Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court. Williams surpasses Twain in historical scope, however, for Blackman, who has been a diligent student of black military history (even instituting a seminar on it in his company), as he fades in and out of consciousness, proceeds through virtually every significant military action involving Americans, from the Revolutionary War to a racial military apocalypse which occurs, with fitting symbolism, at the turn of the second millennium. Interwoven with and counterpointing the historically based fantasies is the fate of the modern-day Blackman, his sweetheart, friends, and enemies in 1971 Vietnam. With additional complexity, most of these persons are incorporated and fitted into the fantasies as well.

As with the author’s The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), the chapters in this novel have been divided into main sections, each concluding with an important climax. Expressive of the author’s criticism of white society’s unjust treatment of blacks throughout history is that almost every high point, achievement, or joyous moment in the action is followed and counterbalanced by some harsh disappointment or deflation. For example, in the first six chapters that compose section 1, Blackman moves through the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, encountering (or nearly encountering) many famous historical figures (Crispus Attucks, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant) and rejoicing in his race’s splendid deeds, which culminate in the black division’s bravery at Petersburg, Virginia, which shames the white soldiers for their cowardice. Yet this triumph is undermined by false face-saving reports of the action, as the sheer number...

(The entire section is 988 words.)