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 These glosses are actual historical documents that center on the plight of the African American soldier.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...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

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 structural placement of these conspiratorial planning sessions by white power brokers, as well as their content, implies how historical events have been directed from their inception, as does the military sense of the term “cadences,” denoting the underlying measure or beat which directs the marching soldiers. The “Drumtaps” sections usually conclude chapters, in harmony with the military sense of this term, and quote actual military documents that substantiate white injustice.

A number of motifs are woven through the novel, in accord with the interweaving of historical sequences. One motif that expresses the overall racial theme is the recurrent, consciousness-robbing blow to the head that Blackman receives in the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War II episodes, and that is always delivered by whites (and usually associated...

(The entire section is 421 words.)