“A colored girl named Belle Marion Greener would never have been considered for a job with Mr J.P. Morgan. Only a white girl called Belle Da Costa Greene would have that opportunity”
This is a remarkable story about one of the most powerful women in New York pre World War I. She was born Belle Marion Greener and is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black Harvard graduate and an advocate for equality. Despite being born to black parents, Belle’s complexion isn’t dark. After her parents’ separation, her mother and her siblings decide to pass as whites and change their surname to Greene to separate themselves from Richard Greener. When questioned about her heritage, Belle refers to her alleged Portuguese background, which explains her slightly darker skin.
We met Belle working at Princeton University Library, where she was trained in cataloguing and reference work and developed a growing knowledge and passion for rare books. Her father taught her about fine art and literature and always encouraged her to read. In her twenties, she is hired by J.P Morgan to curate a rare collection of manuscripts, books and artwork for his new Pierpont Morgan Library. Then she is introduced to New York society and becomes one of the most influential people in the world of art and book. Her charisma, excellent taste and incredible negotiating skills help build a world-class collection.
“But that’s the price, isn’t? Pretending to be someone that you are not. I realised that to achieve one dream, you had to forsake your core identity. Changing your name is easy. Changing your soul is impossible. Our society forced you to make that choice. And that is a travesty.”
It was regrettable to read what struggles Belle had to deal with. Racism and segregation have brought terrible injustices and pain. Belle’s family had a tough time accepting her mother’s decisions for them to have a good life, education and successful jobs. You may judge her for abandoning her true heritage, but I still think she was an extraordinary woman. She sacrificed her true identity and played her part well to protect her family and legacy. All she wanted was to create a place where everyone could appreciate literature and art, and with her intelligence, style and brilliance, she did just that.
I found this novel very inspirational and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a bit of historical fiction.
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