If the "Negro is America's metaphor," as Richard Wright has said, then it is valid for us to assume that the Running Man, a recurrent figure in Afro-American literature, is one of the black writer's most effective metaphors, the symbol through which he has been able to express his view of America's agony. In fiction, drama and autobiography Afro-American writers since Ralph Ellison, men like William Kelley, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Ameer Baraka), Douglas Turner Ward, Ronald L. Fair have used running as one method of articulating their conception of the black experience in America. [In Kelley's A Diffrent Drummer, Ward's Day of Absence, and Fair's Many Thousand Gone] the Running Man is the passive resistant, that fictional figure rising out of the actual experience of the civil rights movement which reached its apogee in the late fifties. His nonagressive resistance is a rejection of the values of the dominant society and an indictment of the hypocrisy and immorality of white America. (p. 7)
The locale of Fair's fable is a tiny mythical county in Mississippi, so isolated that the blacks, unaware of changes in the outside (read real) world, are still enslaved. The novel is ironically a kind of updated slave narrative for the blacks are still in almost the same condition as they were in the nineteenth century….
Many thousand have gone from the South, but Jacobs County is guarded and run by the sheriff and its one plantation owner, the benign Mr. Jacobs—that unbeatable combination of benevolent owner and vicious overseer. Together they keep the blacks at work in the fields, unpaid, uneducated and immobilized by fear. They are symbolically the millions of docile southern blacks who, before the 1950's, accepted conditions not too different from those which prevailed before the Civil War. Their submissiveness, according to Fair's satirical vision, is the consequence of a plan of masterful deceit, the wholesale duping (through legal, political and economic chicanery) of the majority by the careful collusion of the minority. (p. 9)
[The] whites in Ronald Fair's fabled world are unrelievedly vulgar and despicable. They are not incensed at the possibility of losing the black population. In fact, they are quite willing to annihilate the race in one murderous orgy when they find that the government has the temerity to interfere with their folkways. Violence on a massive scale does not repel them…. [But Josh, the leader of the blacks] pulls his people together into a fighting force, sets the town on fire and then hurries to the jail where, in a final ironic gesture, he sets "his emancipators [two Federal officials jailed by the sheriff] free." Clearly the law, with all its well-intended servants, is not going to help the black man out of his twentieth-century enslavement. Nor is passive resistance anything but a holding action: "These people, who had never known the meaning of the word resistance, were marching to Granny's house to protect her from the white men."… Granny's only real protection finally comes about, however, when the blacks meet violence with violence.
The running men in Many Thousand Gone are both the anachronistic fugitive slave and the black man who proves the race up North by his brilliant example. They are escapees from a primitive present in search of a civilized existence. These black running men are determined to seek freedom for the entire race; theirs is a social, collective vision. In Fair's not-so-fictional world, however, it is the black fighter who unlocks the doors of injustice. Running for this protagonist is more aggression than escape. It is aggression born of a new...
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perception of black reality. Josh is a symbol of the passive resistant on the road to militancy. He no longer rejects violent action, but uses it as a tool in the struggle for life….
Fair's satirical fantasy, Many Thousand Gone, reflects … vividly the changing tenor of the times…. For all practical purposes the passive phase of the civil rights movement came to an end in the mid-sixties…. The Running Man continues his metaphorical existence … and his actions take on new, positive connotations. Running as escape is gradually displaced by running as a subtle act of aggression. (p. 11)
Phyllis R. Klotman, "The Passive Resistant in 'A Diffrent Drummer', 'Day of Absence', and 'Many Thousand Gone'," in Studies in Black Literature (copyright 1972 by Raman K. Singh), Vol. 3, No. 3, Autumn, 1972, pp. 7-12.∗