"In the striking book, Smith attempts to retrace her lineage from Sunflower, Ala.—where her father’s family lived and where her grandfather returned after World War I—to the present day. A memoir as well as a meditation on the often fraught nature of institutional record keeping, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, a former U.S. poet laureate, bares her soul to understand her family’s story as it relates to the enduring violence and subjugation of the Black community within American history. In her process to color in more of her family’s past, she challenges readers to sit with what it means when history fails us—and, crucially, when it’s given the opportunity to liberate us." —Rachel Sonis, TIME Magazine
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 7TH:
McNally Jackson Books with Imani Perry
McNally Jackson Seaport
New York, NY
Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a professor of English and African and African American studies at Harvard, writes prose at once dazzling and exacting. On nearly every page of this book is a phrase or sentence to marvel over, a word (usually an adjective) so unexpectedly apt that it freshens familiar language. [...] Over and over, she pits the dead rhetoric of institutions against the vibrant hum of human speech.
—Becca Rothfeld, The Washington Post
Smith suggests that, somewhere in the space between “free” and “freed,” the soul of America resides. [...] And what is a democracy, after all, but a corporate soul? Were it merely a corporate body, Americans wouldn’t be so desperately at odds with, and in love with, one another. America’s internal conflict arises from a conflicted soul. The parts of a body tend to instinctively work together to pursue things that will help the body to survive, whereas a soul will passionately tear itself apart.
—Shane McCrae, The New York Times Book Review
Former U.S. poet laureate Smith digs into her personal history to come to terms with our current social and political climate in her elegant new memoir. [...] The reality of not only surviving America’s “centuries-long war” but thriving, exemplified by her family, is told through poetic and engaging turns of phrases. Smith is adept at looking backwards while expressing an urgency that grounds the reader in the present, writing “History arrives? Better to accept that it is never gone despite our insistence to file much of it safely away, out of sight and mind.” The juxtaposition of her family’s stories with the Black experience in the U.S. feels like a journey toward a greater understanding, one readers are lucky to be invited to take.
—Allison Escoto, Booklist starred review
Smith’s search into her past took her to archives, military records, and census forms, where, she notes, “there is no column for Love,” but still, the forms reveal “names and traces” that allow her to reconstruct “stories and lives that can liberate us.” Those lives were buoyed by a strong sense of spiritual community, where the “ring shout” served as “a shared heartbeat.” The shout, Smith explains, is “a cultural practice rooted in praise, song, and the soul-sustaining power of something so unperturbed by logic as to call itself the Holy Ghost.” Because of her parents’ “titanic effort,” Smith and her siblings grew up to transcend many racial barriers—Smith graduated from Harvard, where she now teaches—and, she writes, “were allowed to mistake ourselves for the Free.” But as she reflects on her education, career, marriages, and motherhood; and on many recent, recurring incidents of violence against Blacks, she increasingly identifies with the Freed. “What,” she asks, “might this nation stand to learn from a people whose soul alone has carried them through centuries of storm and war?”
A lyrical memoir conveys an urgent message.
Ours is a great nation, one standing in the need of prayer, like the old song says. But Tracy K. Smith’s To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul is a jeweled revelation—a good Word, a solace—for our troubled times in this troubled place. Smith urges us through an archival journey of family and love and spirit, and retains an always-persuasive hope: that this land can and will sing possibility—for all of us.
—Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
This is a wondrous offering from one of our greatest poets. Like the very best of memoirs, it is one life “seeking to move forward into the past by way of words”—and it is about everything and all of us: history personal and civilizational, freedom and Freedom, the American imagination, the human soul. One perfect word after another, so often stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful, Tracy K. Smith circles around and through a question each of us stands before in this time: “What have I been given, what do I now hold, that can be of further—even of urgent—use?” Where she takes that question is a gift to us all.
—Krista Tippett, host of On Being
“Tracy K. Smith is one of the most beautiful and profound writers of our time. I wept and laughed my way through these gorgeous pages. She teaches us how our beloved ancestors remain our protectors and guides, and how—in Black life—past and present merge in the persistence of injustice and the resilience of our ancestral legacies. The great human virtues: love, hope, and joy move through her narration of traveling through Mexico, Oakland, New England, New York, and multiple universities and relationships over the years, all the while sharing the revelations of her own beautiful multicultural Black life. You will love her story and understand much more about your own.”
—Imani Perry, author of South to America
“To Free the Captives is Tracy K. Smith’s most vulnerable and powerful book to date. Smith reflects on young adulthood to motherhood with unparalleled lyricism, hard-won wisdom, and a bracing honesty that pierces my soul. Her memoir is both an ode and elegy to her family as well as a sobering reckoning of a country that murders Black lives with impunity. Every word is freighted with the gravity of grief and the sublime light of hope; every sentence sings. This important and revelatory memoir will inspire us all.”
—Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings
“A profound, private, yet meticulous excavation of the inexplicable mysteries of Black intimacy . . . Smith has discovered a way to use language to speak resplendently about human struggle and tenacity, for which most of us have no words. Most of all this book is about how love can humble history. Love—dark, strong, ornate, and made of iron. Something that can last for lifetimes. And does.”
—Robin Coste Lewis, author of To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness
“A unique intelligence guides the hand of Tracy K. Smith through the archives. It is an intelligence that is both fierce and composed; both compassionate and unflinching. And if intelligence is a kind of light, this light is the kind that allows alchemy. Under its radiance, the violence of the archive becomes one of the most powerful meditations on history, time, and the thread of ancestry that I have read.”
—Valeria Luiselli, author of Lost Children Archive
“In one sense, To Free the Captives is a grief-stricken lamentation for the dead. A vulnerable, honest look at a life lived in a country still struggling with its evils. Tracy K. Smith has also written a book for her children and for us. Hopeful, despite all that she sees and feels so deeply, that the freed will soon be truly free. Beautiful and haunting all at once. What a gift!”
—Eddie S. Glaude Jr., author of Begin Again
“In To Free the Captives, Tracy K. Smith faces the animal of American history armed with love, metaphor, and enormous courage, and the results are wondrous . . . Clarity of poetry and the poetry of clarity mark every sentence and page in this book. The reigning feeling/thought in Smith’s writing is love, reminding me of what Hannah Arendt once wrote: ‘Love is the weight of the soul.’ To Free the Captives is a revelation, a seminal work of American literature.”
—Aleksandar Hemon, author of The World and All That It Holds
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