The critically acclaimed and Whiting Award–winning author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman returns with an unforgettable story about the meaning of freedom.
Coming of age as a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson was all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, had a vision for their future together: Libertie would go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, feels stifled by her mother’s choices and is hungry for something else—is there really only one way to have an autonomous life? And she is constantly reminded that, unlike her mother, who can pass, Libertie has skin that is too dark.
When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. As she tries to parse what freedom actually means for a Black woman, Libertie struggles with where she might find it—for herself and for generations to come.
Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States and rich with historical detail, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new novel resonates in our times and is perfect for readers of Brit Bennett, Min Jin Lee, and Yaa Gyasi.
Libertie is an historical fiction set in the late 1800s. Our titular character is named for her dying father’s wish for her to know true freedom. But Libertie, although intelligent, well spoken, and beautiful will struggle to be released from society’s strongholds. In the book her mother’s character is loosely based on Susan McKinney Steward, the first black doctor in New York state. Although this bit of history is interesting, Libertie is not focused so much on the mother’s accomplishments but on the relationship between mother and daughter. Throughout the book we are asked to consider what freedom is in all its nuances and to examine the chains that hold us captive.
The book opens with Dr. Sampson raising a man from the dead. Libertie stands in awe of her mother and begs her to teach her how to heal. But she soon realizes that this man — although he escaped the shackles of slavery and the grip of death — he is not free. His undying devotion to a dead woman leaves him haunted by her memory and Libertie skeptical about love.
Libertie’s mother is able to get her medical degree as she passes for white. But she knows this option is not open to her dark skinned daughter. She goes about trying to find a way to ensure her daughter’s agency in a new unsure landscape where freedom has just been won for the slave. But in her doing so, she ends up thrusting her aspirations upon Libertie.
Despite her status and fair skin our doctor is still bound by other women’s perception of her, their judgment and their fickle natures. She is confined by grief over the loss of her husband and family and fear for the safety of her daughter. Her tongue is tied every time a white patient shuns Libertie or remarks on her color.
When Libertie travels to Haiti we are able to see the contrast between the two countries. Haiti gains its independence early on and is under the rule of black people. But there still exists a separation between those that serve and those that are in authority.
Through these experiences Libertie comes to know that freedom is not just escaping that which binds you, but knowing who you are, what you want and finding the voice to proclaim it boldly.
Kaitlyn Greenidge’s debut novel is We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin Books), one of the New York Times Critics’ Top 10 Books of 2016. Her writing has appeared in the Vogue, Glamour, the Wall Street Journal, Elle.com, Buzzfeed, Transition Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, American Short Fiction and other places. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study other places. She was a contributing editor for LENNY Letter and is currently a contributing writer for The New York Times. Her second novel, Libertie, will be published by Algonquin Books on March 30, 2021. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.