To Free the Captives Dawn Lundy Martin

In her second memoir, Tracy K. Smith breaks free of the bonds of singularity and finds a radical vision of Black kinship.

To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul, by Tracy K. Smith, Knopf, 265 pages, $27

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When and where does the speaking subject emerge as a speaking subject in Tracy K. Smith’s innovative new memoir, To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul? What I mean is that in some ways, Smith’s memoir is in converse relation to that cornerstone of American literature called “the slave narrative,” in which enslaved, escaped, or recently freed Africans claimed “I was born,” a material, mortal, flesh-based Black-ass manifestation of René Descartes’s “cogito, ergo sum.” What Smith does as she pursues an investigation into a relational freedom of the “free” and the “freed” is decenter the individual self and privilege the communal, the familial, kinship, and the metaphysical as a way toward liberation. “By what rite might I enter in?” asks Smith as the book begins, and our imaginations are cast to an ancestral homeplace called Sunflower, Alabama.

I be like, fuck this racist misogynist country while Tracy K. Smith be like, this is our (Black) country that white supremacy is fucking up. There’s a big part of me that believes Smith’s perspective is more radical, more brave. To Free the Captives seems to contend that Black people are the soul of America, and when we as Black people do our soul work, which is always, we can transcend the systematic violences that seek to annihilate us and become, instead, something of an other order entirely. A sometimes speculative, sometimes spiritualist, sometimes cultural-historical memoir of family and American racism, To Free the Captives writes into possibility that “vulnerable as we are, we who are Black have long known the borders of self and ego to be permeable.” Smith goes on to ask later, “What if we are being told, by the violence rippling through the world, that our living must not any longer be solely for ourselves?”

Smith tells the story of one of her grandfather’s neighbors in Sunflower, Simon Tricksey Sr., a military veteran, who writes an appeal in good faith to the state’s governor after suddenly getting fired from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation during the Great Depression. The assumption here is that the firing has to do with the fact that Tricksey is Black. “Very near all of the colored folks have been cut off,” writes Tricksey. The official response is a letter that offers nothing. “Nothing is a holding pattern, a cloud passing before the sun.” Smith, when writing about her grandparents, also writes about the people around them unrelated by blood, visioning a new version of kin, as if to elevate the condition of Blackness in the Jim Crow South as blister, and the defiance of Black people as dignity. “I search up images of Black soldiers from my grandfather’s time,” writes Smith. She includes their photographs in the book. She describes their faces, their demeanors. “Does anything watch us back?” asks Smith as the faces look out.

The chapter titled “Train of Souls” is as much a kinship history as a critique of institutional ambivalence (or cruelty, depending on your perspective). It includes for the first time, but not the last, mention of the university, how it can position itself like a kind and generous relative. “But the nature of an institutional bond is not unconditional,” she writes. We don’t hear about the university again for a long minute, creating for me, at least, a desperate wanting, having experienced my own interior fracturing inside such an institution. That moment when you realize as a university professor that the place that held you is a place simply indicative of the regime in which it exists, a place where you’re supposed to stay in your place. Smith comes to a similar conclusion: “Institutional indifference can trip off existential crises. I have witnessed it. . . . I endured it.” Dear sister, me too. As I write, three Ivy League university presidents recently testified (horribly) in front of Congress about antisemitism on their campuses. One has since resigned. No university presidents were dragged before Congress and asked whether racist speech against Black people is a punishable offense when the country broke open, in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, pressed to the ground with a knee in his back crying for his mama. What Black professors and university students received instead of righteous inquiry on their behalf were public letters that said nothing. My point here, and what I think Smith is getting at, is that the war against Black people is so integral to what America is that those who are free depend on it to enshrine their freedom.

When the speaking “I” in To Free the Captives emerges more urgently as a subject with her own story to tell, it becomes a vessel, a conduit between this known world and some other ostensibly unknowable world. In the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, Smith teaches herself to meditate. Like Sethe, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, yearning for the Clearing, wanting to hear Baby Suggs’s voice say, “Lay em down . . . Sword and shield . . . Don’t study war no more . . . Lay all that mess down,” Smith listens to the “spaces that the long-ago singing had left behind.” It’s what Smith calls “Time Ago.” In this in-between time-space, the ancestors come to answer her begging call, “What will save us?” The souls respond, “We will save us. . . . Many are we.” Not unlike Sun Ra’s trip to Saturn during the long atrocious American moment when white mobs publicly lynched Black people, the transmutation necessary for survival is salient in Smith’s book. For Sun Ra, he said he “went up,” he was no longer “in human form,” and that the beings on Saturn wanted to talk to him. “They talked to me,” he said. Smith’s experience echoes Sun Ra’s when she writes, “having sat for some time at the foot of that tree, [meditating,] conversing with what- or whomever will greet me, I don’t believe my soul is alone.”

This gathering of souls (her mother, who died when Smith was twenty-two; her father, her ancestors, other new kinfolk), this breaking from the singularity of the self, this making way for a way, is a new kind of freedom-literature for sure. An implicit yet unspoken question in To Free the Captives is: What makes it so that we want to, or have to, leave the body? When writing about taking MDMA and going to raves, she says, “My mind wants to release me. I close my eyes awhile and give myself over to the joy of breathing. I lean against a body or a wall, and slip beyond the borders of my skin.” Claiming a country such as ours makes imperative an obliteration of the I/you/we trichotomy, sometimes so radically a person must do a little traveling.

All this is also what it takes to become a poet, and to write a memoir with the logics and unlogics of a poem, a memoir with gorgeous lyric flourishes like a poem, and language that entreats us to want to know more. I think of poetry as the most democratic literary genre, because it provides some space for readers to enter as co-makers of meaning. We provide the readers with enough language so that they, too, must conjure. It’s a vibrational pull-inside language bringing the reader to their own private out there. Let’s call that wonder. This interaction between poet, text, and reader is probably the most sure way I know that change happens. The mind is released. We are both visited and visitor. Might this be the closest we can all get to freedom?

Dawn Lundy Martin is an American poet and essayist. She is the author of five books of poems, including Good Stock Strange Blood, winner of the 2019 Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry, and Instructions for The Lovers, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in summer 2024. Her nonfiction can be found in n+1, the New Yorker, Ploughshares, the Believer, and Best American Essays 2019 and 2021. Martin is Professor and Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.

In her second memoir, Tracy K. Smith breaks free of the bonds of singularity and finds a radical vision of Black kinship.
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