Michael S. Harper’s “Grandfather” is a celebration of its title character at the same time that it is a recognition of the racism and persecution that were part of the history of many African American families in the United States over the centuries. The poem holds these two subjects together in a delicate balance through its forty-seven-line length.
The first of the two verse paragraphs in the poem (lines 1-22) describes an ugly racial incident from 1915, when a white mob, fueled by a screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), tried to burn out their black neighbor in Catskill, New York. (The film glorified the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan during the Civil War, at the same time that it demonized blacks and their struggles.) Even in the midst of this violence, however, the grandfather in the poem achieves a certain dignity, when “he asked his neighbors/ up on his thatched porch” of the house they were trying to burn down. The contrast between the human being here, a man who is both father and grandfather, and the brutal mob is clear.
In the second verse paragraph (lines 23-47), the speaker highlights the course of his grandfather’s career over the remainder of his life: first working as a waiter at his son’s New York City restaurant and racing, and beating, his grandson in a footrace; then through a series of everyday experiences; then, at last, sitting on a porch dying of cancer. The end of the poem returns to the opening incident, for “the great white nation immovable” is at least symbolically the same mob that tried to burn him out (now metastasized as a killing cancer), and “the film/ played backwards on his grandson’s eyes” in the last lines is the racist Birth of a Nation again. The grandfather’s life, in short, is bounded by acts and artifacts of the racial violence of American history. Put another way, the grandfather, and his grandson after him, are both defined by the particular racial history of this American “nation” or society, and at the end of the poem the film has been “played backwards” but both men know its meaning. Black history, Harper is saying, is highlighted by incidents and attitudes like those in the film and the poem.