Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Algonquin Books, 2021)
The powerful bond between mother and daughter in Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel Libertie is established in the book’s first line: “I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.” The year is 1860, and the impending Civil War and slavery are contemporary hallmarks of Black life in the South; however, the lives of Libertie and her physician mother and their story set in the free North fall nearly outside this national narrative. Not so far beyond, however, to keep the novel from bringing together a rich and complex matrix of narrative threads involving runaway slaves, the free Black middle class, Vodun, and Pan-African Haitian nationalism.
This is a historical novel, and Greenidge takes pains to render in detail the lives of freeborn and newly free Black people and their nineteenth-century aspirations for education and economic stability. Set in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, daughter Libertie is the lovely yet visibly Black daughter of Dr. Sampson, her light-skinned and able-to-pass mother. Colorism sets them apart, but love, genetics, and a resilient nature also binds them.
Libertie’s mother longs to see her daughter join her in the medical profession, and spares no expense to send her to college to ensure that one day “a sign with gold letters on it [would read] Dr. Sampson and Daughter” on the side of their horse-drawn carriage. Greenidge’s storyline rests on the history of upwardly mobile African-Americans, both freeborn and once enslaved, who strove to enter professions that were often restricted to them by race. Specifically, there is a well-documented history of Black bodies perishing during these years due to medical neglect and serving as test subjects in the interest of white medical advances.