Poet Tracy K. Smith didn’t envision herself writing two published memoirs. The 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, Harvard alum and professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate published her first one, “Ordinary Light,” in 2015. Now, she’s back with “To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul” — a “lyrical, haunting, and ultimately hopeful new book” that GBH Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen calls “part manifesto, part memoir and all parts mesmerizing.” Smith recently joined Bowen for a conversation on writing, her life and the meaning of freedom.
Smith said, when describing the genesis of the book, that “I really wanted to think about America at this moment and what feels like the forces of history that are upon us to help them finish our unfinished business.” While initially she focused on past generations of her own family, she said, “I realized my own life also can give me insight into what it feels like to be alive now and what it feels like to be implicated in all of the contradictions that I think make up the American imagination.”
Working with her own family history was an exercise in fact-finding, but also in shared experience. After discovering stories of Great Depression-era extended family having their economic concerns dismissed by the government and her father facing a massive burden of debt while actively serving in the military, Smith said that “for me, stories like that kind of underscore the sense that the freed are moved around and scrutinized in ways that feel brusk, that can lead to a feeling of hurt, of disregard.”
Beyond her own family, she said, “lots of stories like that, I think, make up the archive of Black life. ... What I really think I’m learning is that our relationships with institutions feel more human and intimate and rooted in care than they actually are.” While institutions like banks and universities, according to Smith, publicly use the language of “looking out for” customers, Smith notes that “part of what I’m imagining is whether some of the hope we put in institutions might better be placed elsewhere.” She looks to the Black church and multigenerational family structures as models for community support, and recognizes that “our collective imagination is an unacknowledged institution that exerts power over us.”
In the process of writing, Smith said that “I was startled to realize that our understanding of freedom in this country is different than it might feel at first glance. I believe that we are sorted into one of two categories.” Those two categories — the “free,” for whom Smith says their freedom has “mythologized itself into something that ... is innate,” and the “freed,” whose histories of oppression have led to “a ceiling on what one might be authorized to ask for” — are, to Smith, both significant and distracting. “I really believe that we have more constructive work to do together,” Smith said, “and it will involve stepping away from this commitment to fidelity to the many hierarchies that our society has invested in for generations.”
In working towards undoing those hierarchies, Smith says that while present action is important, “the work of liberation is something that we’re wise to think of as generational ... and if we can invest in that and understand that progress isn’t going to necessarily be fast, I think we’ll be better equipped for the kind of endurance that’s important.”
She also learned a lot about herself while in the process of creating “To Free the Captives.” Smith reflected on her first marriage, which she described as one that “straddled the border” of the United States and Mexico and exemplified those distinct definitions of freedom. “When I was willing to be honest,” she said, “I realized we were each leveraging something to maybe convince ourselves that we were a little bit better off hierarchically than we otherwise would have been.” Identity facets such as citizenship status and race both came to light. “That was really eye-opening, humbling, but it also made me realize, ‘wow, we are in this deep,’” said Smith.
As for “To Free the Captives” as a book, Smith said that the honesty in the writing came easy to her. “The page is a place where I can be courageous and rigorous in a way that it’s hard to do in other spaces,” she said. “The hard work is to do that thinking and drawing into language what is discernible.” This honesty leads to a relationship between writer and reader: “I imagine that I’m inviting a reader to go on a journey with me and grow with me. That’s the hope. ... There’s a huge dimension of trust.”
You can listen to the full interview above. “To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul” is available now via Penguin Random House.