Belle Marion Greener’s father has great dreams for his intelligent, vivacious daughter, and tells her, “One day, the beauty of your mind and the beauty of art will be as one.” Little does he know how his prophetic words will be realized in his daughter’s life or what it will cost her to achieve them.
Though Belle’s father openly advocates for the equal rights of African Americans, Belle and her mother and siblings, all with fairer complexions, choose to pass as white, causing a permanent rift between Belle’s parents. Made into a new image and given another name, Belle becomes Belle da Costa Greene and claims Portuguese ancestry to account for her dusky complexion. In late 1905, she obtains the position of personal librarian to the New York City financial tycoon J.P. Morgan, who was amassing a private collection of artwork, rare manuscripts, and books.
When Belle informs her mother of her new position, the older woman responds, “This is precisely why we chose this path. … 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.”
The Personal Librarian, which includes several sexually explicit scenes, is historical fiction at its best as it highlights issues of racism and discrimination that mirror current cultural realities. Later in life, Belle reflects on her father’s dream of equality for all: “What if Papa’s hopes came true? What if our society could transform and evolve in the manner he dreamed about? Could there one day be a world in which we have new governmental leaders and new laws that would grant equality to all of the citizens of this country?”
In an historical note, the authors write, “We hope that The Personal Librarian explores not only the incredible life and legacy of Belle da Costa Greene but also the sacrifice and suffering that the African American population has endured as a result of the horrific response to the promise of equality—then and now. More than anything, we hope The Personal Librarian inspires discussion about these important issues, conversations that will foster understanding, compassion, action—and ultimately change.” (Berkley)