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"To Free the Captives" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

The Pulitzer Prize-winning former poet laureate Tracy K. Smith has written a lyrical memoir that explores the lives of her ancestors in Jim Crow Alabama, her distinguished father, religious mother, aunts, and uncles.

“To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul” is a fugue composed of 6 chapters and a brief coda. She interweaves ethnic stanzas, family stories, and recurring themes that include a revisited definition of democracy, a discussion of the US as a “soul-making enterprise,” and a reflection on the harm caused by American folk songs.

Smith's narrative has the cadence of her acclaimed poetry. It unfolds slowly, focusing on subtleties. She writes about the almost invisible humiliations her ancestors endured during slavery and in the Jim Crow South and about how sometimes her folks had the pride and courage to challenge the denigrations they suffered, regardless of the consequences.

Smith also provides a distinctive way to discuss contemporary race, class, and power by presenting a dichotomy between those whom she calls the Freed (Blacks) and the Free (Whites). Throughout the book, she stresses how the Freed descend conditioned by innumerable incidents of subjugation repeated by men, women, and even children whose freedom has been innate.

“For the Freed, nothing that is ours defies contestation. Nothing that is ours has not, at one time or another, been regarded, handled, pocketed, and tossed begrudgingly back by the people presumed to have always been Free”—who are also perhaps without knowing it “equally captive.” Another way she states this is, “The Freed are discouraged from confusing themselves with the Free.”

She sees herself as “a guest in the places—we might just as easily call them institutions—where freedom is professed,” and paints a picture of what it meant/means to be Black, “to stand up against blow after psychic blow.” Smith contends the Free and the Freed must not deny this historic dichotomy in American culture but live in and through the past and together do the hard work of saving the soul of America.

Smith’s father was an engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope at Travis Air Force Base in northern California. Her mother was a deeply religious Christian schoolteacher with Alabama roots. Smith and her four siblings grew up to surmount many racial barriers sometimes mistaking themselves for the Free because of the opportunities provided by their parents' backgrounds and careers. But as the author reflects on her childhood, education, career, marriages, motherhood, and the many recent, violent incidents against Blacks, she increasingly identifies with the Freed. She asks, “What might this nation stand to learn from a people whose soul alone has carried them through centuries of storm and war?”

This book reflects Smith’s inspiring poetic skills. Sometimes her powerful explorations of vocabulary and emotions may cause the reader to wonder if she has lost her focus but then her deep thoughts and hopes for her country are brilliantly conveyed with just the right words and images.

About the author: Tracy K. Smith is a librettist, a translator, and the author of five acclaimed poetry collections including “Life on Mars,” which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. From 2017 to 2019, she served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States. Smith graduated from Harvard, where she now teaches.


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