Captain Blackman Summary
by John A. Williams

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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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 reality of his situation in Vietnam. The novel therefore provides a damning chronicle of the treatment of the African American soldier, as exemplified by Blackman. A man larger than life throughout all of his dreams (he endures terrible mutilation from enemy fire that would have killed an ordinary man), Blackman begins his surrealistic military career as a private. Ironically, after two hundred years of heroic service he is rewarded only with a captaincy. The dreams therefore symbolize the injustice done to the African American by the military.

The dreams, in quick succession, outline some of the worst abuses of power in military history. Through the eyes of Blackman’s dream self, readers are exposed to the atrocities of all the wars. In the Revolutionary War, the African Americans were expected to go into battle without muskets. Whites feared that if African Americans were armed, they might turn on their superior officers. During the Civil War, Blackman witnesses the slaughter of black prisoners. During the Plains Wars, Native Americans retaliate with their own atrocities against the atrocities heaped upon them by the predominantly white army. When the Native Americans ask Blackman how African Americans who have been oppressed by whites can in clear conscience serve for them, Blackman has no answer. In 1906, he watches as 166 African Americans are dishonorably discharged on trumped-up charges in Brownsville, Texas. Worst of all, he loses in his effort to rewrite history in World War II. Despite his objections, the Army stands by and allows the people of Tombolo to be massacred.

In the final chapter, the black revolution has happened much in the manner Blackman had suspected it would happen. White officers, particularly those who think like Blackman’s nemesis Major Ishmael Whittman, are undone by their foolish trust in race. Thousands of light-skinned African Americans, Blackman’s protégé Lieutenant Luther Woodcock among them, have infiltrated the upper echelons of the military. Once in positions of power, these revolutionaries instigate a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The novel ends with the whites unable to comprehend how African Americans were capable of such treachery, treachery that evinced skill and intelligence.


(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]...

(The entire section is 1,601 words.)