Mommy issues among the free Blacks of Kings County, New York

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

r/suggestmeabook: I want a coming of age story of a young Black woman whose mother had very specific dreams for her.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 336

Publisher: Algonquin Books

ARC provided in exchange for honest review.

Second half of the 18th Century

From the publisher: Coming of age as a freeborn Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson is all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, has a vision for their future together: Libertie is to go to medical school and practice alongside her.

Ah, mothers. Easy to blame, and often justifiably, but it’s always so much more complicated than daughters anticipate. Not always an excuse, but often an explanation. Kaitlyn Greenidge does a great job of explicating the difficulties between a mother who wants her version of “the best” for her daughter when the two have different ideas of what is the best.

There is a greater comfort in being unseen than being understood and dismissed.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

This relationship is explored in the context of the years just before, during, and after the American Civil War, beginning with an eleven-year-old Libertie witnessing her mother’s first failure (at least that’s she’s seen) as a respected doctor, simultaneously becoming cognizant of her mother’s role in assisting people escape from slavery. Libertie is ready to part of the solution, and she resents anyone’s cold shoulder of her mother, even while she feels coldness radiating from her mother.

It was sad and cold to be outside her caring. It had scared me as a smaller child, made me cry.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

The evolution from idolizing daughter to a more complex adult is well conceived and believable. Libertie evaluates her mother first from how she is situated within their New York community, populated with many free Blacks, to how her mother is situated in the broader US where whites are openly contemptuous, and then Haiti, where Libertie wrestles with various ideas about what it is to be free and Black.

A daughter is a poem. A daughter is a kind of psalm. You, in the world, responding to me, is the song I made.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

Among the books I’ve read this year set in this general period with a Black protagonist, this is the first one where the political and racial situation was mostly in the background, although slavery and racism pervade and inform the actions of Libertie as well as others. What would it be like to spend your life free when the color of your skin is the same as that condemning others to slavery? How does it affect your world view when your interactions with whites begin with violence and end in contempt? The different answers to these questions of Libertie and her mother are inseparable from the quality of their relationship.

I had grown up free, only around colored people, and I could not fathom their scrutiny. And Mama chose them over me, every time.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

But instead of directly focusing on slavery and racism as in The Underground Railroad, or even on the social structure of freed blacks, as in The Conductors, Libertie focuses on intimate relationships, first of Libertie and her mother, then of Libertie and her singing friends, then of Libertie and her husband (and his family) in Haiti. Sometimes Libertie and those around her seem to exist in a parallel world where whites are not a factor, but that illusion is sometimes crushed suddenly, and other times the outside world is only visible through the cracks it leaves.

Music at night, music after dark, music finding its way to you across sweetgrass, can feel almost like magic.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

The other theme that’s explored through these relationships is that of colorism. Libertie is darker than her mother, who is light enough to pass, if she should so choose, which she emphatically does not. But Libertie’s life is shaped by that difference in shade, from how she’s perceived by other members of the Black community as well as by whites. It’s a less heavy-handed approach than The Blacker the Berry, yet still manages to make the same basic point of the insidious effects of colorism.

Mrs. Grady had taken to calling to me, as I left for class, “Go on, Black Gal, make me proud,” and though I smiled at her each time she said it, knew she meant it with love, I could only hear a lie in her voice.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

Kaitlyn Greenidge explores all of these issues and relationships with delicately drawn with thoughtful details, and the resulting book is a pleasure to read.

For more on the significant historical event that I’m not talking about because, well, spoiler, check out this link.