Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

When “A Visit to Grandmother” was published, one reviewer castigated it for not being “concerned enough with the race problem.” Two years earlier, William Melvin Kelley himself had asserted that dealing exclusively with racism was not his intent: “A sixteenth of an inch of skin is nothing either to crow about or to feel ashamed of. If you are a human being, and know it, you will remain a human being even if you are brainwashed, deprived of food, clothes and shelter, drugged, beaten or shot.” Kelley’s preface to Dancers on the Shore (1964) underscores this thought with his vow to “depict people, not symbols or ideas disguised as people.” However, at least in this story, Kelley breaks his own pledge. Although the Dunsfords’ individual motives and personalities are shallowly developed, taken as a group they deftly reveal the universal strengths and sorrows of human families.

Foremost, Kelley illustrates that the bedrock of human families is their unity. In contrast to Charles’s physical separation from his birthplace and acquired bourgeois lifestyle (he sends his children to exclusive schools and summer camps), his extended family members still live in the same town. (In fact, Mama’s very hands “were as dark as the wood” of her chair “and seemed to become part of it.”) The adult Dunsfords even mimic one another in their colors of hair and clothing, white and brown, as if to externalize their shared experiences and...

(The entire section is 568 words.)