Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465
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 and her surrounding circumstances. There are snippets from advertisements for runaway slaves along with quotations from spirituals and wanted posters.
The poem falls into two sections. The first, which does not mention Tubman, is concerned with sketching the milieu in which slave hunters and fleeing slaves coexisted. The description is focused by the stream of consciousness of a harried but determined escaped slave who is swimming rivers and crashing through thickets to escape pursuing hounds. In this part of the poem, the lines taken from spirituals appear as tonics to strengthen the escapee’s resolve.
The second section is less generic, pinpointing Tubman as the leader who is ferrying fugitives to the North. The voice now comes from an escapee under Tubman’s direction. The slave’s voice is counterpointed by the words on a wanted poster that describe Tubman: “Alias Moses, Stealer of Slaves.” Ironically, by calling her “Moses,” the masters adopt the slaves’ way of reading the Bible, according to which the slaves see themselves as Israelites under unjust Egyptian bondage.
In the end, though, Tubman is not so much idealized as merged with the forces of nature. Hayden describes how the shadows of fugitives blend with the dark trees and how their voices mix with the bird calls they imitate. These comparisons act not so much to lift Tubman high as to suggest that the impulse to freedom is as inexhaustible as nature’s impulse to grow.
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