Captain Blackman Themes
by John A. Williams

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Captain Blackman is, arguably, the most complex of Williams’s novels. The interweaving of dreams and reality and of history and future creates a surrealistic world that reaches mythic proportions. By using war as his backdrop, Williams explores not only the writing and rewriting of history but also the human condition.

The use of allegorical figures further develops the themes of racial injustice and rampant inhumanity. The conflicts through history of the “black man” (Blackman) and “white man” (Whittman) are fought in each era. Successively, the African American characters become more powerful, enabling them to battle the racism of the white imperialists. United, the new Abraham and his touch-me-not consort engineer the black revolution.

The novel, however, is more than a work of fiction. Williams provides six historical glosses on the six title pages that separate the major parts of the novel. These glosses are actual historical documents that center on the plight of the African American soldier. Part 1 opens with a quotation from a forgotten African American soldier imploring that he not be discarded without notice. Part 2 begins with a quotation from W. E. B. Du Bois commenting on the role of the African American soldier in the emancipation process. The quotation by Captain Arthur Little of the 369th Infantry Regiment in part 3 outlines the patience and fortitude black soldiers exhibited after being ridiculed by their own army and then loaned out to the French army as a means of solving a political problem. Part 4 underscores the integration of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. An ominous anonymous statement opens part 5. Its accusing tone raises the issue of unspeakable evil and military coverup. Part 6 offers two statements, one made at the House Committee on Appropriations Hearings in 1954, the other from a book about Vietnam published in 1968. These last two underscore the two major issues of the novel: unchecked imperialism in the Far East and racial injustice in the United States.

Within each part, italicized sections called cadences constantly disrupt the novel, as Blackman’s dreams disrupt the linear flow of reality. The cadences are actually vignettes that underscore the evils of policy making, predicting its lethal consequences.

The cadences are works of fiction interspersed within the narrative, serving to magnify the grotesque and the apocalyptic visions. To support these visions, Williams offers “Drumtaps,” testimonies of men who have fought in wars. The words of the famous and infamous are sometimes juxtaposed with the words of obscure soldiers. Often two “Drumtaps” will offer conflicting viewpoints, the resolution demystifying the accepted historical accounts.

By casting this rewriting of history in a fictional work, Williams provides a powerful message: that the major wars in which the United States engaged could not have been won without the service of African American soldiers. It is no accident that Abraham Blackman is a teacher when off-duty. The text itself, as it rewrites history, teaches. As he moves from war to war, from continent to continent, from era to era, Blackman observes, comments, and teaches the history of the African American soldier, a figure that has been erased from the traditional writing of history.

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As with Williams’s novels Night Song (1961) and The Man Who Cried I Am, the central themes of Captain Blackman are the oppression, injustices, and indignities suffered by blacks in a white society, and the necessity of revolt and retribution to overcome these. The function of the numerous surrealistic sections entitled “Cadences” and set off by italics, as well as of the sections entitled “Drumtaps,” is to show that such oppression is conscious and intentional, not merely unthinkingly de facto. The “Cadences” sections usually introduce chapters or parts of the novel, and the...

(The entire section is 942 words.)