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“Often enough, hunting through archival records, I feel as though I am traipsing through a dark mine with only a flickering lamp by which to see,” Tracy K. Smith writes in To Free the Captives: A Plea For the American Soul. In the striking book, Smith attempts to retrace her lineage from Sunflower, Ala.—where her father’s family lived and where her grandfather returned after World War I—to the present day. A memoir as well as a meditation on the often fraught nature of institutional record keeping, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, a former U.S. poet laureate, bares her soul to understand her family’s story as it relates to the enduring violence and subjugation of the Black community within American history. In her process to color in more of her family’s past, she challenges readers to sit with what it means when history fails us—and, crucially, when it’s given the opportunity to liberate us. —Rachel Sonis

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