Just over a year ago, Tracy K. Smith was still searching for the words to explain something she had only recently realized: She, a brilliantly accomplished Black woman in the United States, was not free.
“What does it feel like to… I know maybe in some ways, this proves that I’m a naïve person…” Smith began and began again. “But to wake up to the fact that the error under which I was operating was the belief that I was free?”
It was mid-July in Smith’s first year as a professor at Harvard University, her alma mater. She had recently moved her family of five to Massachusetts from New Jersey, where she had worked at Princeton University for 15 years. Her office walls were lined with books, including her own, one of which had won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. We met to discuss her latest collection, “Such Color,” for The Globe Magazine. With the sun shining into the quiet, Smith worked through her problem.
“To be Black in America means your freedom is contested, corralled, and can be revoked. Even the freedom to be in a liberal space like this and speak what you mean and not be met with what is essentially violence,” she said. “I’m trying to write an essay about this right now.”
That essay instead became Smith’s seventh book, “To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul,” out on Nov. 7 from Knopf. Or perhaps more accurately, the question at the center of that book has become the driving force of Smith’s life. In the last few years, her creative focus, public voice, and spiritual practice have reshaped to center around liberation.
At 51, the award-winning poet, memoirist, translator, librettist, and professor says she is finally able to write and publish the work she most needs. Even if that work critiques the country and institutions that have made her career. Even if that work unabashedly draws wisdom from meditation, ancestral whisperings, and bone-deep cultural knowledge — what Smith calls “counter-logics.” And even if that work requires a hard look at her own complicated and sometimes failed attempts at freedom, including a tumultuous first marriage and struggles with alcoholism.
“That feels like permission I don’t think I had before this,” Smith tells me in the weeks before the release of “To Free the Captives.” “I know I didn’t.”
Smith’s writing has long addressed itself to the nation. She served two terms as United States poet laureate, a role that involves traveling the country to bring poetry to the people. In previous work, she has examined national histories of space exploration and of slavery, as well as detailed personal but widely-felt experiences of grief, desire, and wonder. Hers has always been, and remains, a generous voice.
And yet, there is a difference.
“I have a feeling this is a book that some people will not find a way into. And I feel like that’s OK. I don’t know that everybody is going to be convinced when I say I went in my backyard and I started talking to, you know, these guides and ancestors,” Smith says. “But for somebody who does, I am excited to be in space with them.”
A work of personal and historical nonfiction, “To Free the Captives” traces Smith’s paternal lineage — Black, southern, ordinary and extraordinary — to illuminate the American past and present. Floyd and Kathryn, Smith’s parents, are both deceased, and their losses and lessons course through her writing. In this book, Smith seeks to understand how they and prior generations managed to raise children with an innate sense of worth, despite constant assaults on Black lives and dignity.
The book’s core questions about freedom emerged for Smith in 2020, out of the dual tragedies of a deadly pandemic and continued police murders of Black people. When institutions of which she was a member — institutions she does not name — disappointed her with their refusal to take accountability for their role in inequities, she suddenly questioned her belonging in the rarefied halls she has occupied for most of her adult life.
Looking back on that time, Smith says, “It made me feel like I needed to reconfigure my sense of what I wanted to belong to — and with whom the most important work I wanted to do could realistically be done.”
To find answers, Smith turned to archives and memories that helped illuminate Black struggles for freedom. She pored over census records and Great Depression-era letters. She spoke with her surviving family elders, consulted the words of literary predecessors including the late poet Lucille Clifton, and listened attentively to the voices of named and unnamed ancestors who visited her during meditation and in dreams.
In “To Free the Captives,” Smith also digs deep into a personal archive, including details of her life that she has kept fairly private up until now.
In a chapter titled “Scenes from a Marriage, Or: What Is the American Imagination,” she tells the story of her first marriage and subsequent divorce, an experience she has mentioned publicly, but in far less detail.
Smith met an artist named Diego while she was on vacation in his home of Mérida, Mexico. It was 1998, and she was 26. Smith describes how the two came to live together in the US, first in Oakland and then in Brooklyn, N.Y.. But despite their initial love and connection, the relationship became a complex web of race, citizenship, language, and class, with each partner holding various forms of power. In different ways, each measured their ranking in the American hierarchy against the other.
Another biographical portrait that emerges in new detail comes from the 2010s, when Smith and her husband, Raphael Allison, are parents to three young children. Despite her love for her family, Smith finds herself consumed by grief for her life before parenthood, for her youth. She drinks alcohol to the point that she startles herself, then makes the inevitable excuses. “In the time I’m remembering,” she writes, “my living had become an attempt at forgetting.”
Now several years into sobriety, Smith wonders in her book, “what, and upon whose insistence, [she] was so adamant to forget.”
Why share these stories now? Smith says it took time and distance to see what lessons these and other painful experiences held. But it also became necessary to excavate those memories in order to work out a truer definition of “freedom.”
“In the way it’s often used” in the United States, Smith says, “some are innately entitled to it and others have no business thinking about it.” That first group, Smith terms “the Free.” By contrast, those “descending from histories of subjugation” — people only conditionally or occasionally allowed into civic life — are “the Freed.” It is to the second group that she realizes she, her biracial children, and her forebears belong.
The result of such an arrangement, Smith argues, is that no one in this country is truly free. Almost everyone is intent on securing their place on a never-ending social ladder, as she recalls doing with Diego, or at forgetting and ignoring reality, as she did through alcohol.
But freedom — the ability to move through the world safely, to take part in public life and enjoy its opportunities — is not meant to be hoarded, Smith argues urgently.
“That feels like a form of truth-telling, saying, ‘What I am being asked to settle for is not correct. It’s not what I deserve. It’s not what I’ve been promised. And what you think you have isn’t what you believe it to be.’” She has arrived more firmly at an answer to those questions that stumped her just a year ago — What does it feel like to be uncertain of your freedom? What does it mean?
It turns out that working toward freedom can, in and of itself, provide some joy, relief, and, yes, liberation. Smith delights in the artistic communities she is part of. She delights in finally feeling able to seek and tell the truth. She delights in watching her children — Naomi, 13, and 10-year-old twins Atticus and Sterling — grow in the same state where she once entered young adulthood. She delights in the hard work of liberation, which she calls “an ongoing act.”
“It’s a struggle. It’s an insistence. It’s a demand, and it’s a defiance,” she says, her voice rising as she articulates this definition, as she locates herself in the context of that long struggle.
And, despite moments of grief or disbelief — ”You know, I have a vision of myself that’s 20 years younger than I actually am,” she confesses with a laugh — Smith also delights in age, in the particular freedoms it provides.
“Youth is often about demonstrating and proving and doing what’s necessary to earn opportunities and attention. And sometimes, age just means you’ve done that long enough that you have what you need,” she says. “I feel that way.”
Luckily for us, Tracy K. Smith is not interested in keeping this freedom to herself. She is boldly offering it to all of us, if we are brave enough to share in it.
Tracy K. Smith will discuss “To Free the Captives” with Ibram X. Kendi at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7, at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge at an event hosted by Harvard Book Store.
Dasia Moore, a poet and journalist, is a former staff writer for The Boston Globe.