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Harvard Authors Spotlight: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer, Tracy K. Smith ’94

Tracy K. Smith is a Pulitzer-Prize–winning writer, the 22nd poet laureate of the United States, and a professor of English and African American Studies at Harvard.
Tracy K. Smith is a Pulitzer-Prize–winning writer, the 22nd poet laureate of the United States, and a professor of English and African American Studies at Harvard. By Courtesy of Andrew Kelly
By Dailan Xu, Contributing Writer

How should one reckon with America’s troubled history? In her newest memoir “To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul,” Tracy K. Smith ’94 delves into the past through the lens of her family history with lyrical and moving language. The scent of the red dirt and sunflowers of Alabama prevails throughout the memoir with a documentary-like quality.

After graduating from Harvard College and completing an MFA at Columbia University, Smith pursued a career as a poet and essayist. Smith is now a Pulitzer-Prize–winning writer, the 22nd poet laureate of the United States, and a professor of English and African American Studies at Harvard. In a recent interview with The Harvard Crimson, Smith discussed her journey as an artist and the relationship with writing, family, and history that she tackles in her new book.

Even as a fifth grader, Smith found joy in writing beautiful language.

“I do remember taking what felt like trying to make beautiful language happen in my little book reports and thinking, I can have a flourish, feeling wise and bold of using language in ways that weren't not simply direct,” Smith said.

In boldly claiming herself as a poet at Harvard as an undergraduate, Smith found “a surety.”

“I found a life-saving tool. Both the reading and the writing of poems allowed me to look differently at the world and myself, to learn different and better things from what I was able to observe and remember, and to ask as well,” Smith said.

Smith’s journey as a poet continued to a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and later to New York.

“When I look back, it feels like it was a pretty short journey. But in the time, it felt very long and winding and uphill and unpredictable,” Smith said.

Smith spoke about the tendency of Harvard students to meet expectations and to “get things done.” As an artist, however, Smith believes in embracing the unpredictability and even “lostness” in life.

“I want to invite other people, people who don't consider themselves artists and maybe not even really readers to find a path toward fearlessness and honesty and willingness to wander, to face confusion and move through it having gained something,”Smith said.

Smith started writing “To Free the Captives” with feelings of “loss,” “anger,” and “vulnerability” regarding racial violence — both physical and ideological— in America. In the face of these threats, Smith internalizes her grief and brings hope to readers through writing about her ancestral history. Smith seeks guidance from her ancestors and listens to their voices, using rhyme and rhythmic patterns to emphasize that “sound is the engine of thought.”

“I was also asking [my ancestors] to work with me and guide me to a root of the kind of clarity that I was seeking to corroborate my hope that I, and others like me, have it in us to heal ourselves and others,” Smith said.

When she was a student, Smith realized her American identity left imprints of harm on people in other places in the world, shadowed by American policy. Through those interactions, Smith became aware of other perspectives.

“What does this nation look like to others who don't feel embraced by it?” she wondered.

Smith listened to stories with “humble empathy” and exercised a “deep excavation” through connecting to the spirit of her ancestors.

While writing, Smith conducted genealogical research via archives and ancestry websites. Those traces of family history became her guide.

“It felt like history began to materialize before my eyes. It became concrete,” Smith said. “Of course, the archive doesn't hold much, or most, of the matter of their lives. But it indicates certain patterns, disruptions, choices — maybe even necessities.”

Smith reimagined the life of her grandfather with “flesh and bone choices” through archival genealogical research. Through the concrete, individualized story of her grandfather, Smith found revelation of a collective history.

“Even the most quiet and humble acts are a part of the fabric of who we are together, what we can draw upon, and also what we ought to be willing to contend against,” Smith said.

Smith also commented on the common historical narrative of America — a largely mythological creation that emphasizes the country’s greatness. She held the United States accountable for its construction of an imaginary narrative.

“I think that myth, that form of history making or mythologizing, is a way of harboring oneself from the facts of war, displacement, colonization, inequality, enslavement — all of these brutalities. And it’s a shield from accountability,” Smith said.

Smith recalled listening to distorted accounts of enslaved people in her high school history class. In “To Free the Captives,” Smith instead embraces an honest version of history by approaching the American founding documents with an open mind.

At the same time, Smith is aware that her perspective is embedded in her Americanness. “I am also somebody who harbors a version of collective American imagination — which is riddled with contradictions, which is rooted in a hierarchical organization, and which is invested in ascension, moving on up and leveraging certain things for greater power or freedom,” she said. “Implicating myself in the faults of the American imagination felt hard, but necessary.”

The notion of home and family persists throughout “To Free the Captives.” Even though Smith only visited her family’s home state of Alabama a few times during her childhood, it was always present in her memories and in conversations between her relatives. After immersing herself within shared family stories from the past, Smith felt deeply connected to Alabama as a home.

“I think home, as much as it was rooted in a harsh or even sometimes violent set of policies or interpersonal dynamics across lines of race, was also filled with a message that we can’t let them teach us to see ourselves as diminished,” Smith said.

In writing “To Free the Captives,” Smith traced her own family ancestry and gained a new understanding of herself and of the past. Her honest, vulnerable account of her family history gives birth to a powerful narrative that sheds light on America’s troubled history. The book serves as a consoling guide to readers, taking them through history and to the sunflower lands of Alabama.

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