‘Libertie’ imagines the whole of a Black girl’s self-determination

“Libertie,” a novel about a Black girl growing up in 19th-century New York, rings with historical truth.  

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
"Libertie" by Kaitlyn Greenidge, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 336 pp.

What does it mean to be free? Is freedom an individual pursuit or does it require the collective imagination to bring it into being?

“Libertie” follows Kaitlyn Greenidge’s first book, “We Love You Charlie Freeman,” the story of a Black family living in 1990s Massachusetts as they foster a chimp for a research project and teach it to use sign language. In “Libertie,” she crafts a different, yet familiar, world – a world on the cusp of changing, for better or worse. 

Libertie is a young Black girl living in 19th century Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, a fiercely stoic woman who is Black but can pass for white, has built a successful career as a doctor and expects her daughter to follow her into the medical profession. But Libertie has dreams of her own.

As a Black, dark-skinned girl, Libertie is not exactly free to determine her own fate. Her skin color will not allow her to traverse racial barriers as her light-skinned mother had done. Libertie feels stifled by her mother’s expectations and longs for something bigger than the town she grew up in. 

Greenidge crafts Libertie not into a perfect heroine but into a nuanced one. Named after her dead father’s dream of reaching Liberia, Libertie is as fiery and determined as freedom itself. The emotional and sensitive Libertie eventually grows distant from her reserved mother and the distance turns into a chasm once Libertie leaves her small town to attend an all-Black college.

The relationships between women sit at the center of “Libertie,” even when another major force enters the picture. Emmanuel Chase, a doctor from Haiti, arrives in town. Emmanuel, like Libertie’s mother, is light-skinned enough to pass as white, but he comes from an entirely different world, a place in which Black people have fashioned freedom for themselves. When he and Libertie fall in love, she’s torn between navigating the landscape she already knows or leaving it all behind to start fresh in Haiti, a country she’s never seen. 

Truth and fiction blend seamlessly in “Libertie.” Greenidge’s years-long research into Black history elevates the novel into what scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation.” It’s the practice of pulling from the often incomplete archives on pre-20th century Black life to weave together whole and vibrant stories. Seen alongside the real lives of Susan Smith McKinney Steward, a 19th century Black doctor and her daughter, Anna, Libertie’s story feels more like truth, like a life that perhaps was never documented for scholars to find decades later. 

History buffs will love the various historical references that indirectly shape the landscape of “Libertie.” The end of the Civil War and the New York City Riots make appearances that lay bare the reality of the times. But Greenidge doesn’t rely solely on history to carry the plot of the book and instead imbues Libertie with the fire and will to make her own choices. She drives her own story forward and is an active character in the forces that shape her life.

Throughout the entire book, the definition of freedom is constantly evolving. Libertie realizes that even in a world of freedmen, there are different levels of “free.” It is one thing to be physically free, but what about freedom of the spirit? Greenidge does a deft job  navigating difficult conversations swirling in African diaspora communities around subjects such as colorism, classism, misogyny, and imperialism. There is a blind patriotism in some of Libertie’s American-born companions, who doubt that Haitians will be able to rule themselves without the French. Emmanuel, who has seen what rebellion can achieve in Haiti, believes that Black Americans must not rely on the benevolence of white Americans.

But Emmanuel’s family in Haiti, consisting of his American-born father and his sister, are not truly interested in freedom. They look down on the local Haitian community and they outwardly disapprove of Haitian religious practices that blend elements of West African  traditions and the Roman Catholic faith. With a distorted and false view on the superiority of European life, the Chase family represents how Black people can become agents of white supremacy, even in a “free country.” 

While Greenidge tackles these unwieldy topics with ease in “Libertie,” she does not necessarily seek to answer how we eradicate these issues. We are, after all in 2021, still battling the same forces Libertie resists in the novel. Instead, “Libertie” asks us to reimagine what freedom, when it centers those most dispossessed of it, could look like. What would it mean for Libertie, a young Black woman, to build her own future? You’ll certainly want to read the book and find out. 

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