Toni Morrison described writing historical fiction as “a reconstruction of a world” and “an exploration of an interior life that was not written.”1 In Libertie, Kaitlyn Greenidge brings us intimately and fully into the worlds and lives of Black women in 19th-century Brooklyn and Haiti. Her novel is a deeply researched coming-of-age story of a young woman dreaming ahead into a new world. Its protagonist, Libertie Sampson, is filled with longing, anger, love, and, most of all, a deep hunger to be free and to know what freedom is.
As a child, Libertie thought Freedom was a destination, the place you went when you died. Perhaps, she imagines, the dead go to a “wide, grassy field on a warm and cloudy day,” or maybe a serene and somewhat boring place of endless lectures and unceasing love. As she grows older and learns more of the world, she begins to wonder about the relationship between love and freedom. “Was freedom worth it if you still ached like that?” she muses. “If you were still bound on this Earth by desire?” Growing up with her mother, a righteous and redoubtable doctor, amid the shifts of Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie is unsure of who she is, where she belongs, and what she wants from life. Throughout the story, Libertie grapples with what liberty means to her: freedom from enslavement, freedom from expectations, freedom to discover who you are, freedom to love, freedom from the love that stifles and binds.
When we first meet Libertie, she is nearly 12 years old, watching her mother work a miracle by bringing a dead man named Ben Daisy back to life. Dr. Sampson is respected yet nearly friendless in their all-Black community of Kings County, New York. Libertie’s early life is shaped by her mother and also by the father she never knew, a formerly enslaved man who died before she was born. Like him (and unlike her mother), Libertie is dark-skinned, and she bears the name her father chose for her, “in honor of the bright, shining future he was sure was coming.”
As a girl, Libertie worships her mother and shares her dreams: she will go to college and become a doctor too, and they will ride together in a wagon with “Dr. Sampson and Daughter” written on the side in gold lettering. When a family friend tells Libertie’s light-skinned mother, “Your girl may be dark, Cathy, but isn’t she pretty,” Dr. Sampson simply replies, “Libertie is beautiful.” Libertie’s thrill at hearing these words has nothing to do with the color of her skin. Unlike many of the people around her, Libertie has no negative associations with being dark-skinned. Rather, she flushes happily because her mother, as a doctor, rarely comments on anyone’s appearance at all, unless they are exhibiting signs of clinical disease.
Through meticulous research and exquisite attention to detail, Greenidge resurrects the historical world of 19th-century Brooklyn. One can picture the yarrow and belladonna in Dr. Sampson’s leather-bound book and her garden of medicinal plants, the neighborhood children sobbing as they are forced to participate in a Tom Thumb wedding, and the community’s annual Pinkster celebration.
“Libertie” presents a revolutionary vision of what life could be like for Black women in the 19th century.
Libertie comes of age during the Civil War and Reconstruction, which leads her to conclude of white people, “They did not care for us. I would not care for them.” She subsequently draws away from her mother, whose professional training and ability to pass allow her to open a clinic serving both Black and white women after the war ends. In one of the book’s most powerful and memorable passages, Libertie describes her disgust and disappointment: “Mama acted as though the white women’s pain was the same as ours. As if when they cried, they grieved for the same things lost that we did. … How, when the world was splitting wide open for colored women, could Mama choose to yoke herself to the very white ones who often were trying to sew it all up for us?” For Libertie, gaining conditional entry into white spaces and being merely tolerated by white people are anathema to freedom.
A rift opens between them, and Libertie rejects her mother’s vision of the future and of what it means to be free. “Mama had told me freedom would come by following her,” Libertie reflects, “and I had known it was not true for a long time.” She marries her mother’s protégé, a young doctor from Haiti named Emmanuel Chase, and moves with him to the Haitian city of Jacmel. For Emmanuel, freedom means “that we are wholly in charge of our own destiny.” Whatever Haiti’s problems, it is a sovereign Black country, an idea that holds promise and excitement for Libertie. As they board the ship bound for Haiti, Libertie observes that “colored people were allowed cabins. Already, this world was better.” Libertie’s perspectives of Haiti evolve and deepen as she develops her own relationship with the country, its people, and what it represents.
In Jacmel, Libertie lives with Emmanuel and his family: his father, a Black American missionary bishop, and Emmanuel’s troubled twin sister, Ella, whose hostility conceals more than Libertie at first understands. There is also Ti Me, the Haitian woman who is the only person in the household whose skin is as dark as Libertie’s. Emmanuel says that Ti Me is like a mother to him and Ella; even so, Ti Me sleeps not in the main house but in the kitchen shed in the yard.
“If there is one thing we know for certain,” the Haitian American anthropologist, writer, and performance artist Gina Athena Ulysse reminds us, “It is that without destruction, sensationalism, and violence, there is no Haiti story.”2 Libertie is not that Haiti story. It subverts stereotypes about Haiti by not mentioning them at all. Greenidge trusts the reader to know those things that go unsaid, allowing us to imagine Haiti not as the Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere™, but as it appears through the eyes of a young Black woman from the United States. Greenidge’s vision of 19th-century Jacmel feels real, inhabited, and whole. She describes the walls in the Chase home in Haiti, which don’t quite reach the ceiling so that air can circulate in the tropical heat, the clairin-soaked peppers during Fèt Gede festivities at the Jacmel cemetery, and Bishop Chase’s opinions on 19th-century Haitian politics. She even renders the fraying, overtouched thread of Ella’s compulsive embroidery. Libertie is the kind of deep and nuanced story about Haiti that international readers urgently need today, in the aftermath of President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination. Predictably, many media accounts have reduced Haiti to an ungovernable “failed state,” a place of inherent chaos and suffering, rather than understanding its successive crises as the product of centuries of foreign colonization, exploitation, and intervention.
Just as Libertie unsettles the standard “Haiti story,” it presents a revolutionary vision of what life could be like for Black women in the 19th century. Libertie grows up surrounded by women who are activists, entrepreneurs, volunteers, healers, and worshippers. Some were born free, some escaped enslavement. Though Libertie possesses certain privileges—she and her mother are both born freewomen, her grandfather was a successful hog farmer, and her mother a respected doctor—she is still a Black woman in a racist, sexist world. Her journey of self-discovery and her dreams of autonomy are bound by structural circumstances; it is only when she leaves her mother’s home that Libertie sees how narrow and confining the world beyond can be for women.
Libertie is a loving portrait of Black girlhood and young womanhood. Throughout the narrative, Libertie finds strength, solace, inspiration, and tenderness in women, from her own mother to the sisterhood in Kings County that forms to help Black people in the aftermath of the war; to clear-eyed Ti Me, whose spirituality is a fugitive form of freedom; to her close friends Louisa and Experience, whom she meets in college, talented singers known as the Graces, for whom every song is a love song. Today, as in Libertie’s time, Black girls and young women are regularly adultified, criminalized, or sexualized; their experiences are flattened, their voices silenced. There is little room for vulnerability for “strong Black women.” But in Greenidge’s hands, Libertie is free to be imperfect: uncertain, romantic, petty, bold, stubborn, curious, idealistic, angry, sensitive, and dreamy. She is self-aware but doesn’t always recognize the limits of her self-awareness. She wants so much to find her place in the world.
Libertie is about many kinds of freedom, and also about many kinds of love. These include Ben Daisy’s obsession with the woman in the water, a manifestation of the Vodou lwa Èzili Freda; a sweet queer romance; and Libertie’s own ambivalent feelings for the man she marries. But the two love stories at the heart of Libertie do not concern romantic love. They concern, rather, Libertie’s love for Haiti, and the intense push and pull between a strong-willed daughter and her equally strong-willed mother.
Love is not freedom. In fact, love, romantic and otherwise, sometimes stands in freedom’s way.
Dr. Sampson is a brusque mother, at once sparing with her affection and fierce with her love. Sometimes she is hurtful, and, like many hard people, she is wounded and brittle. She can raise the dead, but much of the time she can barely summon the words to tell the people closest to her what she feels. Libertie is nurtured by her mother’s love but also pulls away from it. Dr. Sampson defines who Libertie becomes, including who she refuses to be. Only by running away from her mother’s ambitions and overpowering love does Libertie see what she’s given up.
Libertie comes to see the reality of Haiti. It is not, as Emmanuel claims, the promised land where all Black people can be free from the kinds of forces that oppress them in the United States. Though its people achieved liberation from their enslavers, classism and colorism remain, as do sexism and sexual violence. Even so, Libertie comes to love Haiti, both for what it is and for what it could be, “enough to wish more for it and my life there than what Emmanuel or his father could imagine.” Freedom, Libertie learns, cannot come from beyond. Eventually, she decides to leave Emmanuel, and the country she has grown to consider her home, and return to her mother, with her newborn twins in tow. Love is not freedom. In fact, love, romantic and otherwise, sometimes stands in freedom’s way. By the end of the story, Libertie confesses, “I don’t know if I, myself, am free. I hope to be.” She hopes, too, that Emmanuel will someday manage to become free.
After I finished the last page of the novel, I found myself missing Libertie Sampson, with all her longing, self-doubt, anger, wonder, and hope. I wished I could spend more time with her in her world, and longed to know what the future had in store for her, and if she ever fully found the freedom she sought.
This article was commissioned by Marlene Daut and sponsored by the UVA Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.