To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul

  • By Tracy K. Smith
  • Knopf
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Sarah J. Trembath
  • November 21, 2023

A searing, soaring lament to our better angels.

To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul

Tracy K. Smith’s new book is a gift to readers and will likely, one day, be considered a masterwork in American arts and letters. To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul is a fugue in seven chapters, interweaving musical lyrics, stories, and a number of themes without a linear plotline.

The memoir explores the lives of the people in Smith’s life: her ancestors in Jim Crow Alabama, her distinguished father, her religious mother, and others. It unfolds slowly, without much fanfare, but we aren’t disinterested. Smith purposely withholds the usual peaks and valleys — the moments of shock and drama present in most memoirs. She focuses us instead on more subtle things, and we find that, in these less-tangibles, we discover what we need to save the soul of our nation.

In between memories, researched realizations, visits with folks, and all that she learns about her upwardly mobile loved ones, Smith paints a picture of what it really meant/means to be Black and survive, “to stand up against blow after psychic blow.” She writes not of the big tragedies and blockades that we already know about but of the all-but-invisible humiliations endured and sometimes transcended by proud people with little recourse to challenge them outright.

Using the poet’s skill of rendering in words things all but impossible to render in words, Smith tells us about how a prayer is heard. How the Holy Spirit moves between mother and daughter. How ancestors gather around a poet in repose and show her things to come. How children choose their mother before they are born. The exact way that music carries us through the unthinkable. How parents withstand in order to build for the next generation.

Smith eschews religiosity but asks, “Do you know what we [Black people] consider ourselves to be? Delivered. Delivered by God.” She explains how that works in her own life:

“I do not descend from histories of power. I descend from a history of daily miracles by which the soul of a people whom institution upon institution has sought to annihilate yet lives on.”

In To Free the Captives, she normalizes the supernatural in a way that will be familiar to many Black readers. She, who is much more of a mystic than a church person, shares the “language of the soul” that was given to her as a child through her family’s faith. She also reveals how, as an adult outside of the church, she may be visited by departed souls when she sits in quiet meditation. With each revelation, To Free the Captives becomes both an affirmation for those of us who live the life of the soul and an education for those who don’t.

The book also provides a new way to discuss race, class, and hegemony without wearying readers. Born of the fateful summer of 2020, when once more America considered reckoning with race, it manages to offer something fresh in today’s ever-ongoing conversations on race. Without being prescriptive, Smith presents a new dichotomy between whom she calls the Freed and the Free. “The Freed,” she writes, “descend from histories of subjugation…acts committed in the names of men, women, and even little children whose freedom has long been accepted as an a priori condition.”

On the other hand, she explains, “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.”

“Am I wrong?” Smith asks provocatively. “Is power Freedom’s prize? — a weapon to wield; a currency to hoard; authority to evict, erase, extract? Is there anything that hasn’t been rendered a weapon?” More importantly, she continues, “What might this nation stand to learn from a people whose soul alone has carried them through centuries of storm and war?”

According to Smith, the Freed — who are also stewards of the past through their family histories — offer sobriety to the Free. To her, a sober look at the past is “accountability.” She is clear, as was W.E.B. DuBois in his 1903 Souls of Black Folk, that “the Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land.” If there’s hope for that, it’s in an honest reckoning with history.

“History is here beside us,” Smith writes, asking us to correct it and pay attention to it. “History imploring us to confront what has been hammered into us about which lives matter” constitutes the author’s plea.

The book is ultimately one of possibility: “It’s time finally to remember different things.” The Free energetically resist that imperative, of course, yet there are glimmers of hope here: anecdotes of public narratives in revision; evidence of privileged people daring to look at what Smith would want them to see.

Yet To Free the Captives is not a book that demands the justice it seeks. Rather, it makes a hopeful offering even as its author continues to navigate America’s racial turmoil for herself and her loved ones, since even the most fortunate among the Freed continue to be “profiled, dismissed, [and] dressed down…not everywhere but anywhere.

Without consensus on the history that got America to its contentious present, none of us can “see the bottom,” anyway. “[W]e are, all of us — in America, beneath America, full with America, famished for what America has promised — I, we, they, you — all are treading the same water,” Smith writes. Without any real reckoning, we, like her, can merely wonder, “Where can we rest?”

Sarah J. Trembath is a poet, author, and educator living in Baltimore, MD. She teaches writing at American University and recently completed her doctorate in education. She is currently revising a 2018 collection of essays for rerelease with Lazuli Literary Group (2024). She was the 2019 recipient of the American Studies Association’s Gloria Anzaldúa Award for her social-justice writing and teaching.

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