“How is it possible to become free when you do not even know who you are?”
Freedom is a theme woven throughout Kaitlyn Greenidge’s excellent new novel set during and after the Civil War. What does it mean to be free, when you must face other people’s expectations, racism and sexism?
Libertie’s father was born a slave. Before he died, he longed to move to a new colony for freed slaves called Liberia, thinking that would be the only way he could be free. His tombstone was engraved with the word Freedom, and his wishes inspired his daughter’s name, Libertie.
Libertie’s strong-willed mother, Dr. Kathy Sampson, was born free. She believes freedom can only come from being financially independent and not reliant on anyone else. This fascinating character was inspired by the first African American female doctor in New York, Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward. Like Dr. Steward, Dr. Sampson lives in a free black community in Brooklyn. She is determined her young daughter will follow in her footsteps and teaches her all she knows.
Libertie does not want to be a doctor, and resents not having the freedom to make her own choices. After seeing the brutality of whites against blacks in New York City, she questions her mother’s willingness to treat white women. Dr. Sampson is lighter skinned and can pass for white, which makes her white patients comfortable. Libertie resents that her mother will not let her help treat these women, because they are uneasy by her dark skin. When Libertie is sent to college to continue her medical education, she encounters sexism when trying to be the only female in her medial class. Her happiest times are spent with two young female singers who struggle with their own definition of freedom.
Libertie meets her future husband, who is convinced that liberty for him means moving back to Haiti. At first she is happy to get far away from her controlling mother, but now she is trapped by her strange new family’s demands.
I was drawn to these vivid characters and the timeless issues they face, from the mother-daughter bond to expectations about how women should behave. Kaitlyn Greenidge has created a thought-provoking look at a time in history where free blacks are struggling to find their way in the world. She also raises important questions for all of us.