Hayden tended to shy away from the martyrology practiced by some militant African American writers who presented highly varnished depictions of the heroes of black history. In “Runagate Runagate,” however, he did paint a glowing portrait of Harriet Tubman, an African American abolitionist who smuggled slaves from the South to the free North before the Civil War.
All ethnic and racial groups have enshrined ideal members who have accomplished great things. It became the special province of radical black writers of the 1960’s to supply such champions for their race, heroes who, these writers correctly claimed, had been neglected by the dominant culture. These militant writers often dismissed Hayden for the lack of revolutionary flourishes in his verse, and they also looked in vain through his works for idealized depictions of African American historical figures. When Hayden did present such figures, as in his allusions to Cinque in “Middle Passage,” the portrait was neither touched up—the atrocities practiced by Cinque’s followers are not glossed over—nor direct (Cinque, for example, is described only through the words of his opponent). Without compromising his commitment to indirection or objectivity, in “Runagate Runagate,” Hayden does give a larger-than-life, though not overly flattering, picture of a valiant woman.
Again Hayden plaits together a number of voices, often hostile ones, to give a rounded picture of both Tubman...
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