To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul by Tracy K. Smith; Knopf, 288 pp., $27
In the final chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois asserts that African-American gospels and spirituals were not only the most original American music but also the most beautiful expressions of humanity born of great suffering. Tracy K. Smith echoes this sentiment in her beautiful lyric To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul, in which she confidently plays Ariadne in the labyrinth of American history, masterfully leading the reader with experiences that depict the resilience of the soul as her red string.
Smith, a former poet laureate of the United States and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 collection, Life on Mars, begins by plumbing the history of her paternal line, using census data to situate her family in Sunflower, Alabama. There, we witness the effects of smothering racism and, in Smith’s depiction of her father and his family, the smoldering ambition, intelligence, and commitment to living a full life that feed the soul. Smith defines the soul as proof of the undying and holy within us—intangible and yet so fully present in secular and nonsecular settings that she calls her family “soul people, believers in the soul” and more broadly asserts that Black people “were the first folk I knew who invoked the soul constantly.” Smith imagines her father’s soul nourished not only by teachers who praised his intellect but also by food grown in his family’s garden. She remembers Saturday mornings devoted to watching Soul Train and Sunday mornings set aside for church. “Where does the soul reside?” Smith asks. “In the heart, the mind?” She imbues this age-old question with the music of a quick rhyme, the i in reside and mind, dancing the question into a contemporary spin. The soul, she offers, “is strongest and most active in the generations of those who claim and conjure it, who nourish it with praise and serious laughter.”
Smith chronicles experiences that range from the blunt force of structural racism—when, for example, the military unfairly invoices her father for the expense of moving his family to his next Air Force post—to the internalized classism of military wives, Black women who ostracized Smith’s mother with gossip, unkind glances, and denigrating comments voiced just loud enough for her to hear. Nothing logical motivated their meanness, Smith asserts (a notion confirmed through her mother’s later reconnection with one of the women); rather, they were attempting to punish her for, in their eyes, “casting the radius of her dreams a little farther off than they had been told they were allowed to cast theirs.” It is in moments like these, as she accounts for the mettle of the human soul, that Smith’s writing shines. “A people’s soul is like a vehicle, conducting the many forward and through,” she writes, “no matter how hard things are, no matter how heavy they get.”
At times, Smith goes beyond her bloodline and returns to the epistolary form that infused her 2018 poetry collection, Wade in the Water. While searching for missing details about her grandfather’s life, she discovers a cache of letters from one of his neighbors, Simon Tricksey Sr., who in 1933 had written to the governor of Alabama about a lost job. Tricksey’s letter is “full of lives … infirm relatives, hungry families,” but he receives from John H. Peach, legal adviser to the governor, a missive of “limp, circuitous, abstract, half-hearted prose” that “commit[s] to nothing: not regret, not sympathy, not even hope.” The story becomes a lesson in how a people strove to keep its soul aloft and intact, even in the Jim Crow South. Tricksey’s words aid Smith in visualizing the hopes and dreams of her grandfather, filling in the faded outline with the borrowed flesh and blood of a neighbor by contrasting Tricksey’s heart with Peach’s rhetorical heartlessness.
Both Tricksey and Smith’s father belonged to a generation that claimed and conjured the soul, as Smith writes, and the glimpses we get into their reality demonstrate the slow accumulation of the rust of racism—the experience of living under the thumb of white supremacy, and how it sabotaged and enervated the aspirations of those subject to its power.
Inevitably, in chapters documenting Smith’s own experience, her writing becomes more personal. She takes the reader behind the curtain of the racial awakening of 2020 as experienced at Princeton, chronicles an early marriage to a husband she names only as “Diego,” then glances at a marriage to an unnamed second husband. But she saves the deeper gaze for the birth of her children and the tolls of motherhood. Smith offers an intimate account of the early delivery of her twin sons and their weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, where the whole room “hisses and beeps.” This powerful experience she narrates with clear and intimate language, not shying away from the questions that plague new parents and how the experience tested her soul. Smith reflects on her duty as parent: “that is what I am here for, why I ache, what I will do, I will love, love you, I am so afraid so afraid but fear is nothing beside what you have come here to do and I will help you I will serve that wish I love you I will I have always I do.”
Another chapter finds Smith detailing an uneasy relationship with wine. Having taken on the responsibilities of parenting Black children—the family’s time in the hospital overlapped with the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot Florida teenager Trayvon Martin—Smith goes beyond the cute sentiments often attributed to mothers and their commercially approved relationship with wine, to instituting a divorce from the drink when she feels that it has gotten the upper hand.
Linguistic echoes occur throughout the text, creating a human chorus of experiencing, questioning, and witnessing. Smith examines the idea of freedom tied to race. There is the Free and the Freed, again an echo of Du Bois. “The Freed—people like me—” she writes, “descend from histories of subjugation … 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.” It is a tough truth that needs to be written, and for those who identify as the Free, she breaks the fourth wall to address their possible “curiosity, skepticism, and pity.”
Laced throughout the book are snippets of gospel songs that take on a new sheen and understanding while one is reading:
we’ll tell the story,
how we’ve overcome,
for we’ll understand it better by and by …
It is by and by, by shard, by fragment, by chunk, by whole that we discover the American soul. This is not just a collection of essays but a sermon, a song, and a prayer. Smith writes: “What might this nation stand to learn from a people whose soul alone has carried them through centuries of storm and war?” If America can see the glory of its people’s soul, we just might chart a better future path together, especially at a time when we can’t seem to agree on a shared past. Maybe we will understand it, by and by.
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