The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Captain Abraham Blackman is, simultaneously, a complex yet allegorical figure. He serves as narrator, protagonist, commentator, observer, and teacher throughout the novel. As he marches from battle to battle, Blackman wrestles with the problems of race relations throughout the ages. He is a man who confronts his fears and anger much as he confronts his duties: head-on. He is tormented through two hundred years of dreams by his antagonist, Major Whittman. He recognizes in the light-haired, light-eyed Whittman the racist and imperialist military mind-set. In two time periods (the War of 1812 and the Plains Wars), Blackman must serve under light-haired men of the same ilk as Whittman: Andrew Jackson and General George Custer, both of whose inhumanity to the indigenous peoples was legendary.

Like the biblical Abraham, Blackman becomes the leader of an oppressed people, thus becoming the new Abraham. Through Blackman’s teaching, young African Americans such as Luther Woodcock will subvert the Whittmans, and Jews such as Robert Doctorow will aid the black revolutionary movement. The younger soldiers who have learned from Blackman are not the passive victims of the past, as the apocalyptic ending bears out.

On the other hand, Blackman’s nemesis, the narrow-minded, petty Major Whittman, is purely allegorical. He is not Walt Whitman, who as a poet sought to encompass all humanity, but instead the opposite of what the poet represented. Ishmael...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The author is capable of supplying the odd detail that provides fully rounded characters—the manner in which Johnny Griot (in Blackman’s Vietnam squad) carries his M-60 like a film soldier, the priapic talk and antics of Big Dick (a soldier in Blackman’s segregated World War II barracks), or the way in which Woodcock wears the biggest afro in the company, possibly to compensate for his light skin. Yet, as with his preceding novels, Williams’s main purposes in characterization are didactic and doctrinal: Characters symbolize or are spokespersons for (or both) social positions or points of view in a society that is, overall, racist. Characters are sympathetic toward the black cause, hostile, or somewhere in between. This symbolic or allegorical aspect produces a flattening effect even on the most fully realized and alive character in the book, the hero. For though animating details such as his shoe size (twelve) and preference in wine (Meursault) are provided, what is important about the hero is his embodiment of the indomitable black spirit and the hope for leaders like him who will give blacks the opportunity to live lives of the fullest potential. His allegorical significance is markedly suggested by his name, reinforced by the World War I version of Mimosa’s speculation about it, in the middle of the book: “She thought his name: Abraham. A man you trust. Kind. Like a father?” Besides all these and other connotations of the name “Abraham” by way of Abraham Lincoln, including Lincoln’s reputation as the Great Emancipator (Blackman has fought in the Civil War, as well as in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War), the biblical Abraham is also evoked as another great spiritual leader—and warrior or soldier—in an episode not often remembered, when to liberate his nephew Lot, he takes a small band of 318 to fight against the armies of four kings. The last name of the hero, “Blackman,” combines “black” and “man,” to suggest that he embodies the spirit and yearning of all his people. The character...

(The entire section is 834 words.)