The critically acclaimed and Whiting Award–winning author of We Love You, Charlie Freemanreturns with Libertie, an unforgettable story about one young Black girl’s attempt to find a place where she can be fully, and only, herself.
Coming of age in a free Black community in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson is all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, has a vision for their future together: Libertie is to go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, feels stifled by her mother’s choices and is hungry for something else—is there really only one way to have an autonomous life? And she is constantly reminded that, unlike her light-skinned mother, Libertie will not be able to pass for white. When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. As she tries to parse what freedom actually means for a Black woman, Libertie struggles with where she might find it—for herself and for generations to come.
Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States and rich with historical detail, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new and immersive novel will resonate with readers eager to understand our present through a deep, moving, and lyrical dive into our past.Barnes and Noble
Read: June 2021
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Over the last few months, I’ve been on a journey to diversify my shelves, so I sought out some recommendations from lists on the web. Libertie was suggested to me by Taiwo Balogun’s article in Marie Claire about new books from Black authors this year. The themes of colorism, racism, and feminism appealed to me – plus, that cover is beautiful.
It’s not that there are no good things about this book. Greenidge has a truly entrancing writing style. Her prose flows and illustrates in a way that hooks readers and transports them into Libertie’s world. Considering that Libertie is supposed to have a penchant for the arts, this writing style completely fits with Libertie’s character. Greenidge also offers some insightful commentary on colorism, colonialism, gender, and racism through the eyes of a Black woman. The discrimination Libertie endures differs starkly from that faced by her mother Catherine, because Catherine possesses a light skin tone. While her mother’s light skin allowed her to slip into a prestigious academic program and establish herself as a gifted pupil before the racist assholes who ran the school discovered she was Black, Libertie’s dark skin earns her nicknames (sometimes meant endearingly, sometimes not), expressions of disappointment (“It’s too bad she inherited her father’s color”), and admonishments (very often from other Black people). After her marriage, Libertie finds that her Christian, wealthy, Black American in-laws harbor deep prejudices against the Black, pagan, and considerably darker-skinned people of Haiti – beliefs that eventually strain Libertie’s marriage itself. Libertie’s experiences remind readers that even though White people certainly bear responsibility for systemic racism and historically were/are the worst perpetrators of colonialism, racial, cultural, and color-based discrimination against people of color is not limited solely to White people. After treating survivors of the New York City draft and race riot of 1863, Libertie finds that she cannot reconcile Catherine’s post-war service of White patients, and that she is – understandably – outraged with the horrible way White patients treat her because of her skin color; lighter-skinned Catherine, while still treated as unequal by her White patients, is more accepted. Following her marriage, Libertie finds that her Christian, wealthy, Black American in-laws harbor deep prejudices against the Black, pagan, and considerably darker-skinned people of Haiti – beliefs that eventually strain Libertie’s marriage itself. Libertie’s experiences remind readers that even though White people certainly bear responsibility for systemic racism and historically were/are the worst perpetrators of colonialism, racial, cultural, and color-based discrimination against people of color is not limited solely to White people.
For all of those terrible and fascinating insights, I felt like this book dragged on longer than necessary. Although I liked Libertie’s character in the beginning of the novel, she began to truly irritate me about halfway through. I understand how the prejudices she has suffered have shaped her life and have forced her into difficult or ridiculous decisions, but sometimes Libertie is just flat-out foolish. Her choice to marry Emmanuel and buzz off to Haiti rather than confess her academic failure to her mother is immature and extremely frustrating. Perhaps my annoyance stems from ignorance of the experiences of a Black woman in the Reconstruction era – something I will never truly be able to completely understand, no matter how many books I read or documentaries I watch. The solutions seemed so very obvious to me sometimes, but then again, I am a White woman living a hundred fifty years after the events of the book with many more options and privileges than Libertie ever would have had in her time period. It would be much more difficult for a woman to leave her husband in 1870 than it is now, and I don’t have to consider my skin color when seeking out transportation or work – all things Libertie has to worry about.
Still, I think Greenidge would have done better to have narrated through multiple viewpoint characters rather than just focusing the story on Libertie. Catherine briefly is a viewpoint narrator of sorts, but only through her letters. Louisa, Experience, Ella, and Ti Me never have viewpoint chapters. All of these women have different knowledges of the Black experience, and all that they added to the story as Greenidge wrote it could have been amplified and expanded by making at least some of them viewpoint characters. Narration from the viewpoint of Louisa or Experience would have painted a more vivid picture of what it meant to be a queer Black woman during that time period. Ella’s viewpoint would have highlighted the suffering her brother and father inflicted upon her by convincing her that she saw nothing of the sexual assault(s) her father committed. Ti Me, too, would have been better and more poignantly able to explain what it was like to be nurse to kids less than ten years her juniors. And of course, Catherine would have had much to share about her unique position as a Black woman physician. On its own, Libertie’s story tends to meander and lag, to take too long to reach its points.
I don’t know. Maybe my problem is that historical fiction isn’t usually my thing. If historical fiction is your thing, please don’t be discouraged from reading Libertie. This book has a lot to offer, even if it isn’t quite for me.