Guest Post by Kevin Brown
In To Free the Captives, poet Tracy K. Smith brings her lyrical writing style to the essay form, as she explores what it means to be Black in America today. Rather than straightforward essays laying out an argument, though, Smith uses parts of her life—her marriage and motherhood, for example—as entry points into meditations on the world as she experiences it.
She ruminates on the difference between being Free (white) and Freed (Black) throughout the collection, as she reminds readers that the past is as present as ever, for good and ill. She draws on the lineage she knows and delves into her family history, but she also looks to the broader Black culture for ancestors who can support her and the other Freed, as they continue to shape lives of meaning and beauty.
This approach isn’t metaphorical for Smith, as she feels those who have come before her speaking to her and guiding her in who she should be and who she could yet become. Her subtitle of “A Plea for the American Soul” reminds readers that both the Free and Freed must live in and through this past, as we all seek to create a present and future together; ignoring the past will only deepen the divide that has always existed in the American soul.
To Free the Captives by Tracy K. Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, 2023.
Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels.