She left us at night,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith in the opening of her new memoir, Ordinary Light, which was just nominated for the National Book Award in nonfiction. “She’d been lifting her hand to signal for relief, a code we’d concocted once it became too much effort for her to speak and too difficult for us to understand her when she did.”
The “she” Smith is referring to is her mother. Smith is recalling her mother’s death 20 years earlier—and the effect it had on her and her family. The death of a parent is never easy, and throughout Ordinary Light rises the impact of Smith’s mother’s death and the pivotal presence Smith’s mother was in her life.
“Watching her warmed me,” writes Smith of her childhood with her mother. “I was calm and safe beside her, right at home.” Smith lovingly draws a portrait of her mother that calls to mind the rich mother-daughter relationships depicted in the work of authors Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat.
In Ordinary Light, Smith documents not just her appreciation for her mother but also the trajectory of her own life as she learns what it is to be a black woman in America: her childhood in Northern California navigating the casual racism of her predominantly white community; her Ivy League education; her first experiences with love; and her discovery of black politics and poetry. The birth of her own children leads Smith to understand her mother in a deeper way.
Smith writes her success as an ode to her parents’ love and intelligence: Her father, an Air Force engineer, and her mother, a former teacher, invested highly in their five children’s futures by teaching them to value themselves, their culture and their minds. Here we see the power of the simple “ordinary light” of things like dignity and respect, which white families take for granted and black families are often denied by society when they’re striving to create an environment in which their children can succeed. Writes Smith: “No matter what the world thought it knew about blacks, no matter what it tried to teach us to believe about ourselves, the home we returned to each night assured us that, no matter who was setting the bar, we could remain certain we measured up.”
Early on, we see the future author begin to understand the importance of books—her love of them spawned when a child full of curiosity took an interest in the volumes that sat on the oak bookshelves her father had built throughout their home. We see Smith’s dawning awareness of race and racism, beginning with the discovery of a “Little Black Sambo” caricature in an old children’s book from the 1940s. Smith recalls how “her parents laughed at the story in the way people laugh about something that was once incendiary but has since run out of force.” But there is also a deeper acknowledgment here: For black children, nothing is quite safe. Even a favorite pastime, such as reading—heralded as a good, productive thing—can bring with it the sudden, unannounced pitfalls of prejudice and stereotypes.
One of the most compelling aspects of Smith’s memoir is the space she creates between the girl she was then and the woman she is now, reflecting upon her life. When in the hands of a master writer like Smith, this reflective space of the memoir creates ample room in which to share the wisdom and awareness gained through the passage of time. Reflects Smith on her mother’s death: “How different would the process have been if I had remembered that we—my entire family and I—were going through it together, if I could have brought myself to say something simple and true to Jean or Michael or our father?”
And there is always the question of memory—what remains, what is lost: what shifts over time through our minds’ unreliability. “There was a moment when I found myself alone with her in the room,” writes Smith of the minutes immediately after her mother’s death. “I’ve forgotten so much that I once forbade myself to forget, but I do remember this: snipping five or seven strands of her hair with a pair of nail scissors from her bureau.”
Smith is already a legend in the literary world; in addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for her third poetry collection, Life on Mars, Smith has received the prestigious Whiting Award and a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, among other honors. She was also a member of the Darkroom Collective, a group of African-American writers formed by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange in 1987 that is credited with bringing about a resurgence in African-American poetry.
In Ordinary Light we luxuriate in Smith’s poetic gift for language—in her detailed, haunting imagery and profound depth of meaning. There is a great precision to Smith’s writing—an insistence upon specificity that does not detract but instead adds to the beauty of sentences that carefully build into graceful structures, a beauty reminiscent of the musical language found in the essays of Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf. Smith’s memoir is an important meditation on the importance of family and the formation of self—a lyrical homage to the many loved ones on whose shoulders we stand as we make our way into our own brilliant light.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.