Within this poem, Harper addresses his relationship with his grandfather, celebrates his life, and addresses the racist policies (economic and social) that African American individuals and families have faced throughout US history.
When speaking about this poem, Harper recalls watching The Birth of a Nation, the controversial 1915 film referenced at the beginning of the poem, in college. His instructor, he said, frustratingly asked the class to analyze the film based on its technical achievements, completely ignoring the overwhelmingly racist narrative.
‘Grandfather’ by Michael S. Harper is a powerful poem about the poet’s grandfather and racism within the United States.
The poem draws on details from the early 1900s, including the famously controversial film, The Birth of a Nation, in order to describe what Harper’s grandfather endured. The poem opens with a description of his white neighbors coming to burn down his house, believing it was their right to drive him out of their neighborhood. The poem progresses into more personal territory, alluding to the close relationship between the poet as a boy and his aging grandfather.
You can read the full poem here.
In 1915 my grandfather’s
neighbors surrounded his house
of a Nation,
or so they thought.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by telling readers about an incident from 1915 in which his grandfather’s neighbors tried to “burn” him out of the neighborhood. They surrounded his grandfather’s house and tried to set it on fire hoping that this act would help them “be rid of his kind.”
With prior knowledge of Harper’s writing, it becomes clear quite quickly that racism and the experience of Black Americans are going to be at the heart of this poem.
The white men and women who tried to destroy the speaker’s grandfather’s home believed that if this “lone black / family” died, it would be the “Birth / of a Nation.” They believed, the speaker asserts, that it was their right, as Americans, to rid their country of people like this Black family.
The phrase “Birth of a Nation” is an allusion to a 1915 silent film that is referenced in line eight of this same stanza. It was originally titled The Clansman and was adopted from a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr. It was the first American 12-reel-film ever made and is part fiction and part non-fiction. The story follows two families during the Civil War and reconstruction and has been regarded for decades as the most racist and controversial film ever made in the United States.
Throughout, viewers are asked to sympathize with the Confederate cause. The film promotes something known as the “Lost Cause” ideology, which suggests that the Civil War was not based on slavery but on the oppression of the southern states. The Confederate cause, the movie suggests, was heroic and right.
The film was, as this poem suggests, incredibly popular with white audiences around the United States. It was a commercial success and has been acknowledged as one of the primary sources of inspiration for the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Harper notes that these white neighbors believed they were in the right, and well within their rights, to drive his grandfather out of his home.
His 5’4” waiter gait
quenched the white jacket smile
that would bring him down.
In the next few lines, the narrative transitions. Readers who are familiar with Harper’s verse will likely recognize the poet’s challenging language and college-like writing style. He brings together images of his grandfather and father, helping readers, one small detail at a time, envision his family.
He remembers his grandfather, who was only 5’4”, in a “white jacket smile.” The “gait” he carried himself with overcame this specific type of smile that, perhaps, represents the grandfather’s attempts to get through life without becoming the victim of terrifying racist violence from the previous lines.
Describing the fire as a “blossom” is an interesting choice in the next few lines. Harper challenges readers with his language, asking them to interpret from the juxtaposed images the nature of his grandfather’s life and what truly happened with the house fire. It becomes clear, the more one reads this piece, that his neighbors were driven away from his home by his grandfather’s address to them. This is mentioned explicitly in the next lines.
They went away, his nation,
spittooning their torched necks
he will win in white clothes.
The neighbors, the grandfather’s “nation,” “went away.” Clearly, something the grandfather said or did convinced his neighbors to move off and walk away into the “shadows of the riverboat / they’d seen.”
The final lines of the first stanza bring in a personal image, moving away, temporarily, from issues of social, economic, and political racism. The speaker describes challenging his grandson to a “foot-race.” Again, the image of “white clothes” presents itself. This suggests as it did in the previous lines that the grandfather is doing what he can to remain safe and successful in his neighborhood.
I see him as he buys galoshes
toward Brooklyn, where his rain fell;
The speaker begins the second stanza by providing readers with a few more images from his memory. He remembers seeing his grandfather buying galoshes, or rain boots, for “his railed yard.” The name “Mineo’s” is one of several specific references to a location from Harper’s youth. It accompanies others like “Madison Square Garden” and “Sutter” from the previous stanza. The “metal shop,” named or operated nay someone named “Mineo,” is where “roses jump / as the el circles his house / toward Brooklyn.”
The fifth line of this stanza includes a great example of caesura or a pause in the middle of a line, that’s followed by another interesting image, “where his rain fell.” This line immediately feels deeply metaphorical, especially considering the contrasting image of fire in the previous lines.
The rain feels like both a negative and positive. Traditionally, rain is used to represent sorrow. But, as a force that could quench a fire, it’s a positive (perhaps representing safety). The two-sided nature of this force fits in perfectly with the contrasting lights and darks Harper presents throughout the rest of the text.
and I see cigar smoke in his eyes,
chocolate Madison Square Garden chews
forwards, or the film
played backwards on his grandson’s eyes.
The poem ends on an incredibly powerful note. The speaker recalls seeing his grandfather’s body deteriorating throughout his youth. He remembers seeing him “stitched up after cancer” and still contending with the “great white nation” that, throughout the years, has remained “immovable” in its hatred of Black men, women, and children.
Harper brings the narrative back to the “porch” that is featured at the beginning of the poem. The language in these lines suggests multiple interpretations. Perhaps the speaker was considering how, as he aged, he grew away from the porch his grandfather spent so much time on and his dependence on his family.
He continues to recall his grandfather’s changes and the changes in the world around him (or lack thereof). The final image is of his grandfather looking into his “grandson’s eyes” (Harper’s eyes) and seeing the “film / played backward.” He’s imagining what his grandfather must have thought as his youthful grandson saw the same images that once inspired a group of white neighbors to burn down his own. A great deal of time has passed since the beginning of the poem. Harper was born in 1938, more than fifteen years after the incident in the first lines.
The speaker is moved into empathizing with this point of view, acknowledging that when he came to understand how African Americans were regarded within the united states that he lost, as all children would, the innocence of youth. His grandfather would’ve been incredibly pained, the speaker implies, to watch this play out in his grandson’s eyes.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with two primary themes: family and racism. While describing his grandfather’s life and his relationship with him, Harper also depicts the terrifying treatment his grandfather endured at the hands of his neighbors and how he managed to live through it. The poem acts both as a personal testament to family strength as well as an allusion to the broader racist environment within the United States.
Structure and Form
‘Grandfather’ by Michael S. Harper is a two-stanza poem that is divided into one set of thirty-one lines and one set of sixteen. The poem is written in free verse, as are most of Harper’s poems. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines vary to a great degree in length.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: a transition between lines that does not occur at a natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of the second stanza.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “black” and “Birth” one l
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “in” begins lines one, five, and eight of the first stanza.
- Allusion: in the first stanza, the poet alludes to the 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, and how it inspired his grandfather’s white neighbors.
The author is famed African American poet Michael S. Harper, well-regarded for his groundbreaking free verse. He worked as a professor at Brown University from 1970 to 2016 and passed away in May.
The speaker appears to be the poet himself. He is looking back on his grandfather’s life and the way that the community treated him, and other African Americans, during the early 1900s.
Michael S. Harper was born in Kings County, New York City, on March 18, 1938. He passed away on May 7th, 2016, in Providence, Rhode Island.
Michael S. Harper was an African American poet, Guggenheim fellow, winner of the National Endowment for the Arts, and a professor of English at Brown University. He is well-regarded for his free verse poetry.
The main theme is racism. But, it is presented along with images of Harper’s grandfather. This means that readers are forced to contend with a collage-like grouping of allusions to the past and what Harper’s grandfather, and African Americans around the country, endured.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘The Wake’ by Owen Sheers – is a tribute to the poet’s grandfather.
- ‘As I Grew Older’ by Langston Hughes – is about breaking through the “wall” that racism constructs. The speaker, a Black man from the African American community, spends the poem discussing the light of forgotten dreams he’s newly determined to attain.
- ‘Incident’ by Countee Cullen – describes a terrible incident from the poet’s youth that occurred when he was happily visiting Baltimore.