Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Harper describes the genesis of “Grandfather,” from the collection Nightmare Begins Responsibility, as the showing of the D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation in a college film course. He recalls his anger at the instructor’s attempt to emphasize the technical achievement of the film while ignoring its racist, inaccurate presentation of the events following the Civil War. Harper was determined to tell the story of his grandfather and his father (who was born in 1915, the year of the film’s release) as a testament to the reality of black life after the Civil War.
The first long stanza is primarily a recounting of factual information describing how his grandfather’s “neighbors surrounded his house” planning to “burn/ his family out,” as if this act of hatred could be the birth of their racist nation. This act is set in contrast with the humanity of the man himself, depicted with a simplicity that shows how his calm courage deflects the blind anger of the mob, a “posse decomposing” in confusion. There is a sudden shift from the past of the poem’s initial setting to a present in which Harper envisions his grandfather, now in old age, still strong enough to win a footrace against the boy who will write the poem.
The last stanza of the poem continues in a mood of recollection, as Harper narrows the focus to the mundane but necessary acts of existence that define the reality of a man’s life. His language becomes more lyrically evocative, as he is moved by the images of his grandfather. In spite of the grandfather’s resilience and fortitude, he—like so many black men—finds “the great white nation immovable,” and “his weight wilts.” Yet this is not an expression of defeat, because the man has left an impression on “his grandson’s eyes.” As he says of his own father, whose “recollections in part were consummated in my writing,” he was in his actions “their embodiment and their legacy”—an example of what Harper hopes to achieve in his art.