Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

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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 dreams. They further demonstrate their solidarity by welcoming Charles and Chig, who are veritable strangers, without hesitation.

This sense of kinship that defies time and distance becomes most prominent in the story’s final scene. As the dinner conversation focuses on family memories, some of the Dunsfords—Chig, his aunts, and Mama—ask, answer, or direct questions. The two remaining men, Charles and his voracious brother Hiram, listen. By accounting for every member’s behavior, regardless of vigor or passivity, Kelley emphasizes the importance of each individual’s participation in order to make the family vibrant. Thus, Aunt Rose keeps piling food on Chig’s plate, despite his polite refusals, as though in some way the sustenance of the very least among them is necessary for the survival of the others.

Even the conflict between Charles and GL exposes a truth about family unity. These two men are so unlike each other that it seems unfathomable for them to have shared even one parent. GL, “part con man, part practical joker and part Don Juan,” is the family’s black sheep who has never established a career and family, constantly brushes the wrong side of the law, and cultivates his wits for survival as much as for trend-setting eminence. On the opposite end of the social spectrum, Charles, a soft-spoken, long-married father of three, owns his own home and maintains a successful medical practice. Ironically, though, both men exist on the family’s periphery. Just as Charles leads a self-imposed exile in New York, GL flits from place to place outside his home. Foreigners to their own kin, GL looms as the roguish hero of the family memoirs while Charles puzzles his mother when she tries to identify him. Such similarities suggest that these two are brothers, with something in common, no matter what comes between them. Having sprung from the same bloodline and shared the same upbringing, they have more potential for ignoring their differences than first appears.