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.


Fiction most truthful

Big 4+ review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin

r/suggestmeabook: I want a reimagined history of slavery that illuminates individual and group brutality as seen through the eyes of a young enslaved woman.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 320

Audiobook: 10 hours and 43 minutes

Publisher: Doubleday

2017 Pulitzer Prize: Fiction

From the publisher: In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop.

I decided to read this book after seeing it on a list of historical fiction must-reads and didn’t look into it any further. For a change, I decided to try the audiobook (and it was available sooner from my library). Bahni Turpin is an amazing narrator. She did a great job with the voices, making each character distinct. She got through all the brutality without ever overdoing it and turning it into a mockery, which would have been tempting, as harsh as it gets at times. And the writing? Gorgeous.

Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The first section of the book, about 1/5 of the overall text, is straight historical recreation. Colson Whitehead makes sure that we’ve adequately toured the degradation of field hands in Georgia’s cotton fields. What was unexpected was that, unlike other books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, Whitehead delves into the relationships between the enslaved—not the typical house vs. field, but among those working the fields—and how the cruelty of their environment poisoned the relations among them. Twelve Years a Slave or Django Unchained didn’t go nearly this far, so be prepared for a shit ton of violence. Is it unwarranted? I think not, given what the reality was.

Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than the one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America, the quirk was that people were things.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So imagine my surprise when I get to the part where the railroad is literally carved underground. It’s not like they hide it in the description, so it’s my bad for not knowing. Not knowing that this was going to be more along the lines of alternate history, it was like taking a bite of what you thought was gravy and finding out it’s pudding. It’s not that you dislike the pudding; it’s just that you weren’t prepared for it.

The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating patter. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I do have some issues with the literal underground railroad, just because the world is so literal in most ways that it’s a strain on the suspension of disbelief. Creating tunnels that reach from Georgia to Indiana would be a feat of engineering far past the ordinary abilities of untrained labor, even today. In the period, the technology was just being invented after early attempts to tunnel under the Thames demonstrated the hazards of doing so–it’s not just a matter of enough brute strength to pick your way through the stone or earth.

But even that didn’t bother me so much as what anyone who watched enough WWII POW escape movies (or even Hogan’s Heroes) knows: What would they have done with all the debris? That’s always a big thing for those movies–or of prison escapes by tunneling. You have to have someplace to put the dirt you’ve taken out of the hole to avoid suspicion. So where the hell did they put the debris? It bothered me more than it should.

The cabins radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings in those who lived and died in them: envy and spite.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

But, okay, I got past that. The writing is beautiful, in contrast to the horror it invokes, and the pace is generally on point. I’m not crazy about the digressions into other points of view that don’t really lend themselves to moving the plot along; only two of them seem at all necessary to the story.

White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him? That was one kind of work you could say no to.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The use of other historical assaults on the health and integrity of Blacks in this country, although displaced in time and place to be included in this narrative, integrates the narrative of racism in an effective way. It’s not just evil slaveowners on the plantation, but reaches out across to those who are purportedly looking to advance Blacks.

Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tine moment across the eternity of her servitude.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

As a result, it’s easy to enter into the feelings of Cora, the protagonist, when she is suspicious of whites who say they’re going to help. It’s easy to say; hard to do. Even seemingly helpful whites offer betrayal at times, so it’s hard to know who to trust. But Whitehead doesn’t then elevate all Blacks to sainthood; there’s treachery there as well. Whitehead’s world in The Underground Railroad, bent and distorted by slavery and the concomitant racism, is a stunning feat of imagining oneself into another reality, informed by facts but turned into an immersive experience through his artful use of them.

As the years pass, Valentine observed, racial violence only becomes more vicious in its expression. It will not abate or disappear, not anytime soon, and not in the south.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So, on the balance, I am in favor of this alternate reality, as it shines a light on truth through fiction. It’s not quite perfect, but, damn, it’s close.


Poe gets an antiracism lesson

As a teaser for a future series, or to get me to read more of April White’s books, this succeeds. As a standalone, I have some issues with it. However, the author earned brownie points from me for giving an afterward that gave the historical record. 

Let me start with my bias: I’m not fond of novellas generally, and this one is representative of why.  I like what is there quite a bit. Ren, the protagonist, is a woman you want to know more about. The author does a stunning job of adapting known facts about Edgar Allan Poe into this time travel book and the prose is well paced and easy to fall into.

What gives me problems is that it feels like so much is missing,. Perhaps this novella is meant more for readers who have already invested in the prior Immortal Descendants series, in which case many of the unexplained background may be obvious to those readers. But as someone new to the world, there isn’t enough world building. And even then, that background wouldn’t help me understand the murky motivations of the prime villain of the piece–or maybe it would. 

The other issue for me is that everything happens too quickly. Characters change their stances too fast and  believe the magical parts of the magical realism novel much too quickly. The plot is resolved almost instantaneously, which left me with a “Wait, did I miss something?” feeling.​

​This feels like it could have been a novel with a little more fleshing out, but it does its job well as an ad, because I know I’m going to read more of the series.