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By Michael S. Harper

In 1915 my grandfather’s

neighbors surrounded his house

near the dayline he ran

on the Hudson

in Catskill, NY

and thought they’d burn

his family out

in a movie they’d just seen

and be rid of his kind:

the death of a lone black

family is the Birth

of a Nation,

or so they thought.

His 5’4” waiter gait

quenched the white jacket smile

he’d brought back from watered

polish of my father

on the turning seats,

and he asked his neighbors

up on his thatched porch

for the first blossom of fire

that would bring him down.

They went away, his nation,

spittooning their torched necks

in the shadows of the riverboat

they’d seen, posse decomposing;

and I see him on Sutter

with white bag from your

restaurant, challenged by his first

grandson to a foot-race

he will win in white clothes.


I see him as he buys galoshes

for his railed yard near Mineo’s

metal shop, where roses jump

as the el circles his house

toward Brooklyn, where his rain fell;

and I see cigar smoke in his eyes,

chocolate Madison Square Garden chews

he breaks on his set teeth,

stitched up after cancer,

the great white nation immovable

as his weight wilts

and he is on a porch

that won’t hold my arms,

or the legs of the race run

forwards, or the film

played backwards on his grandson’s eyes.


Michael S. Harper, “Grandfather” from Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems. Copyright ©2000 by Michael S. Harper. Reprinted with the permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.

Source: Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2000)

Poet Bio

Deeply influenced by the blues and jazz, Michael S. Harper draws attention in his work to the many injustices suffered by African Americans over the course of this country’s history. Then, like the musicians he so admires, out of this painful and even tragic legacy, he makes song.

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