In Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel Libertie, Libertie Sampson comes of age as a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn. Libertie is all too aware that her exceptional mother, a practicing physician, has a vision for their future together: Libertie will go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, is not interested in being exceptional. She is constantly reminded that, unlike her white-passing mother, she is dark. When a light-skinned young man from Haiti proposes and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate in various ways. 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.

Libertie follows hot on the heels of Greenidge’s critically acclaimed debut We Love You, Charlie Freeman, in which the Freeman family are invited to the Toneybee Institute to participate in a research experiment involving a young chimp. Greenidge’s highly anticipated sophomore novel does not disappoint in delivering her distinctive brand of thematic intensity. Whereas some might feel overwhelmed by the novel’s multiple and sometimes crowded themes, others will delight in how that thematic richness makes for a depth of characterisation that is lifelike in its ambiguity. As per the heroine’s name and weighty title, this is a novel of ideas that grapples with the meaning of freedom in a violently anti-Black and colorist world. A dark-skinned woman who has no particular interest in using excellence and exceptionalism to bargain for her humanity, Libertie’s positionality is constantly contrasted with that of her mother and husband, both of whom are exceptionally talented, ambitious, and — most relevantly — white-passing.

“This is a novel of ideas that grapples with the meaning of freedom in a violently anti-Black and colorist world.”

Greenidge’s historical fiction is based on meticulous research into the real life of an exceptional woman. Susan Smith McKinney Steward was the first Black woman to become a doctor in 1870s New York State and the third to do so nationwide. Dr. Steward’s daughter, who married a Haitian Episcopalian bishop, was deemed at the time to be comparatively wayward. This historical fiction has yet to strike that delicate balance between tracing the historical record and reimagining it. Sometimes the plot drags, and other times it is the paper-thin facilitator of an abstract search for meaning. 

In The New York Times, Greenidge describes that search:

Part of what I wanted to explore is, what’s the emotional and psychological toll of being an exception, of being exceptional, and also, what about the people who just want to have a regular life and find freedom and achievement in being able to live in peace with their family which is what Libertie wants?

Greenidge, too, comes from a Boston-bred family of high-achievers. In a recorded discussion with The Center for Fiction, she jokes about her black-sheep status (despite the fact that she is an acclaimed writer).  

Libertie is spookily, if not depressingly, contemporary in how its concerns speak to the Black struggle today. In an interview with Shelf Awareness, Greenidge says:

I think a big misconception is that our current moment is somehow one that has never before been experienced. One of the pleasures of studying history is finding the ways the past mirrors the present, and is also completely different and points to radically different outcomes.

In the discussion at The Center for Fiction, she talks about how we are living through a second Reconstruction. Black achievement is highly visible, and often used to prove our humanity. One recent and highly visible example is that of Breonna Taylor: it is just such a shame she got shot because she was, you know, a respectable Black lady™ working as an EMT. Libertie’s parsing of freedom is a parsing of respectability politics that writes against the myth of Black exceptionalism. Libertie herself says it best: “this other way of looking, this besottedness, was just as damning.” This is a book for the sisters who are tired of being strong and excellent, for the sisters who have no interest in conditional humanity.

“This is a book for the sisters who are tired of being strong and excellent, for the sisters who have no interest in conditional humanity.”

With a hospital-owning doctor for a mother and a full-time, self-appointed race liberator for a husband, Libertie is enveloped in Black brilliance. But while “anger looked marvellous on Dr. Chase, Mama had made it clear [Libertie’s] anger was useless, unbecoming, superfluous in this world.” This is but one example of how Greenidge’s perceptive prose cuts away at the myth of Black excellence and the hypocrisy of its ideal. Chanté Joseph writes about how Black excellence hinges on white ideas of success and is often used to refer to the infiltration of prestigious white spaces like, for example, the medical field in nineteenth-century Reconstruction Brooklyn. The only difference is that, at that point in time, success wasn’t just about emulating whiteness: you literally had to look white! Just as her mother’s ability to be a renowned doctor hinges on her white-passing skin, the radical talk of race and revolution by Libertie’s husband (Dr. Chase) is a privilege facilitated by his proximity to whiteness and his distance from the lived knowledge of being, for example, a dark-skinned Black woman in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn. As the pale and prestigious Chase family inflict their Washington-esque elevation rhetoric on the Haitian people, who maintain Afro-traditional ways of life, Libertie realizes she was wrong to think that her husband “had a bigger imagination … his imagination was a cooking pot with the lid on, boiling.”

In this undeniably American investigation of the concept of freedom, Greenidge writes against the overrepresentation of exciting slavery-to-freedom narratives in the media, shining an anticlimactic but necessary spotlight on slavery’s afterlives, including the tenaciousness of mental servitude. “Their bodies are here with us in emancipation, but their minds are not free,” she writes. Though Libertie’s mother can treat an ex-slave’s physical ailments, she cannot mend a broken soul. The decoy coffins in which the Underground Railroad smuggled many to freedom are devastatingly symbolic. In exploring the psychoses that are colorism and the myth of Black exceptionalism, Libertie is a timely reminder of just how durable those mental chains are.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

KAITLYN GREENIDGE debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, was one of the New York Times Critics’ Top 10 Books of 2016 and a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times and the features director at Harper’s Bazaar, and her writing has also appeared in Vogue, Glamour, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Substack, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Greenidge lives in Massachusetts. Her second novel, Libertie, is available now. You can find her @surlybassey on Twitter.

Parsing Freedom: A Review of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s LibertieLibertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Published by Algonquin on 30 March 2021
Genres: Historical fiction, Coming-of-age, African American
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
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three-half-stars

This review was originally published in Split Lip Magazine’s 2021 Summertime Issue for Black Voices.