Review: Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Review by Amy Halvorson Miller

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s recent historical novel, Libertie, came to mind as we moved from African American History Month to Women’s History. The title character, Libertie Sampson, was named for her late father’s wish that she know true freedom. She is a dark-skinned free Black woman, daughter of a light-skinned mother who became a physician in Brooklyn during the Civil War. In fact, the story is inspired by the life of Susan McKinney Steward, one of the first Black women to earn a medical degree in the U.S. Dr. Sampson’s hope for her daughter is more specific: Libertie should go to medical school to join the practice.

Libertie’s mother enrolls her in a strict college in Ohio where she is the only female medical student. Her own interests and the voices of the Graces call her to music instead. Still, she is lonely and unsure of who she is as both a free woman and as a daughter freeing herself from her mother. Greenidge’s writing is emotive, drawing us with empathy toward our young protagonist. Libertie must navigate her path, not just academically and socially, but wrestling with the realities of racism, colorism, and sexism, as well.

Moving further from her mother, Libertie finds romance with a handsome, light-skinned man from Haiti who convinces her to marry and move to his homeland. The lush, exotic island with its mysterious religion and Emmanuel’s family welcome her at first, but is she any more free than she was in Brooklyn or Ohio?

Libertie is a character whose decisions we may struggle with. Why marry when her path to a secure vocation appears secure? How does she honor her parents and her future children, while seeking her own full freedom? This is a strength of the story in that the reader must consider her moment in history, fortunate parentage, and dark-skin circumstances as she enters adulthood.

Greenidge’s work to complete Libertie was assisted by several grants including one from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her well-researched fiction is gorgeous, thought-provoking, and pairs well with non-fiction historical writings of the 19th century about society during Reconstruction and the changes it brought for those previously enslaved as well as those freeborn. Her story helps to humanize the facts we may learn elsewhere about the era, easing us into exploring its serious topics. Libertie asks us to consider how events of the past connect with issues we continue to grapple with today; when to be silent; when to speak.

Look forward to writing that is often anguished, yet lyrical, and a main character who grows emotionally, despite her decisions. Libertie, set in the past, is a pleasure to read with richly layered themes relevant in our own time.