From the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet: a stunning meditation on memory, family, and history that explores how we in America might—together—come to a new view of our shared past.
“A vulnerable, honest look at a life lived in a country still struggling with its evils . . . Hopeful . . . Beautiful and haunting.” —Eddie S. Glaude Jr., author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own In 2020, heartsick from constant assaults on Black life, Tracy K. Smith found herself soul—searching, and digging into the historical archive for help navigating the “din of human division and strife.” With lyricism and urgency, Smith draws on several avenues of thinking—personal, documentary, and spiritual—to understand who we are as a nation and what we might hope to mean to one another.
To Free the Captives begins this journey by assembling a new terminology of American life. Parsing the difference between the Free and the Freed, and the distance between Time Ago and Soon, Smith etches a portrait of where we find ourselves four hundred years into the American experiment and offers a compelling argument for the vocabulary of the soul as a tool for fulfilling our duties to each other and to the future.
About the Author
TRACY K. SMITH is a librettist, translator and the author of five acclaimed poetry collections, including Life on Mars, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was a finalist for the National Book Award. From 2017 to 2019, she served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States. She lives in Massachusetts.
“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
“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
“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 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. In writing the experience of being Black in America—and therefore being most intensely—she thinks her feelings and feels her thoughts. There is no dissociation of sensibilities here, and 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
“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 ofMinor Feelings
“A profound, private, yet meticulous excavation of the inexplicable mysteries of Black intimacy. Smith is a master at revealing that fine shimmering line between imagination and memory. To Free the Captives is such a book. It is a revelation of interiority, pulsating with astute, attentive, seriousness. ‘Is love an institution?’ Smith asks in these pages. Was generations of black love, above all else, that propulsive force behind our survival and thriving? This book is an excavation where love hides within history—or better put, this books examines how the quiet inimitable force we call ‘Black love’ made American history possible. Word by word, Smith sparks the ground with her blade, then allows us to follow her below into the sacred world of the unspoken. But this isn’t a book about hidden secrets. Instead, it’s a shimmering articulation of all the resplendent rich silences American history has yet to learn how to articulate. And what’s truly remarkable is that—somehow—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