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Poster for Harvard Book Store Presents Tracy K. Smith

Harvard Book Store Presents Tracy K. Smith

Coming on November 7

Run Time: 90 min.

Harvard Book Store Presents:

Tracy K. Smith


To Free the Captives:
A Plea for the American Soul

in conversation with IBRAM X. KENDI

Harvard Book Store welcomes TRACY K. SMITH—Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and memoirist and a professor of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard—for a discussion of her latest book, To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul. Joining in conversation is Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award–winning author of fifteen books including the bestselling Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.


Each ticket includes admission for one and one signed hardcover edition of To Free the Captives, pre-signed by the author.

About To Free the Captives

In 2020, heartsick from constant assaults on Black life, Tracy K. Smith found herself soul-searching and digging into the historical archive for help navigating the “din of human division and strife.” With lyricism and urgency, Smith draws on several avenues of thinking—personal, documentary, and spiritual—to understand who we are as a nation and what we might hope to mean to one another.

In Smith’s own words, “To write a book about Black strength, Black continuance, and the powerful forms of belief and community that have long bolstered the soul of my people, I used the generations of my own patrilineal family to lean backward toward history, to gather a fuller sense of the lives my own ancestors led, the challenges they endured, and the sources of hope and bolstering they counted on. What this process has led me to believe is that all of us, in the here and now, can choose to work alongside the generations that precede us in tending to America’s oldest wounds and meeting the urgencies of our present.”

To Free the Captives touches down in Sunflower, Alabama, the red-dirt town where Smith’s father’s family comes from, and where her grandfather returned after World War I with a hero’s record but difficult prospects as a Black man. Smith considers his life and the life of her father through the lens of history. Hoping to connect with their strength and continuance, she assembles a new terminology of American life.

Bearing courageous witness to the terms of Freedom afforded her as a Black woman, a mother, and an educator in the twenty-first century, Smith etches a portrait of where we find ourselves four hundred years into the American experiment. Weaving in an account of her growing spiritual practice, she argues that the soul is not merely a private site of respite or transcendence, but a tool for fulfilling our duties to each other, and a sounding board for our most pressing collective questions: Where are we going as a nation? Where have we been?

Praise for To Free the Captives

“Tracy K. Smith is one of the most beautiful and profound writers of our time. I wept and laughed my way through these gorgeous pages. She teaches us how our beloved ancestors remain our protectors and guides, and how—in Black life—past and present merge in the persistence of injustice and the resilience of our ancestral legacies.” —Imani Perry, author of South to America

“A vulnerable, honest look at a life lived in a country still struggling with its evils. Tracy K. Smith has also written a book for her children and for us. Hopeful, despite all that she sees and feels so deeply, that the freed will soon be truly free. Beautiful and haunting all at once.”—Eddie S. Glaude Jr., author of Begin Again

“A unique intelligence guides the hand of Tracy K. Smith through the archives. It is an intelligence that is both fierce and composed; both compassionate and unflinching. And if intelligence is a kind of light, this light is the kind that allows alchemy. Under its radiance, the violence of the archive becomes one of the most powerful meditations on history, time, and the thread of ancestry that I have read.”—Valeria Luiselli, author of Lost Children Archive

Mask Policy

Masks are encouraged but not required for this event.

Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, memoirist, editor, translator and opera librettist. She served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017-19, during which time she spearheaded American Conversations: Celebrating Poetry in Rural Communities with the Library of Congress, launched the American Public Media podcast The Slowdown, and edited the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time. Smith is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Such Color: New and Selected Poems; the memoir Ordinary Light; and the memoir-manifesto To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul. She is a professor of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Ibram X. Kendi

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is a National Book Award-winning author of fifteen books for adults and children, including nine New York Times bestsellers—five of which were #1 New York Times bestsellers. Dr. Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, and the director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a CBS News racial justice contributor.

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss

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