Kaitlyn Greenidge: It is so fascinating to me, and I will never be able to understand how people who were literally one or two years out of enslavement did these extraordinary things, of setting up whole towns, hospitals, schools, newspapers, mutual aid societies, parties, just everything, you know? And when we were talking sort of earlier about that question of trauma, people who had lived through amounts of trauma that are indescribable, not really understandable to most of us alive today, still had the wherewithal to sort of build these things, it's absolutely extraordinary.
Jo Reed: That is novelist and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow Kaitlyn Greenidge and this Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed
We’re celebrating Juneteenth with a conversation with Kaitlyn Greenidge about her novel Libertie. An historical novel, Libertie is inspired in part by the true story of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward who in 1869 became the first Black female doctor in New York and then co-founded of a hospital for women in Brooklyn. Greenidge sets her novel before, during, but primarily after the Civil War and Dr. Steward is transformed into Dr. Kathy Sampson—a widow who is raising her daughter Libertie. Coming of age in a Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, Libertie is in awe of her formidable mother and the work she accomplishes as a doctor and a stop on the underground railroad. But as she grows up, she rebels against the pressure to live up to her mother’s expectations—to live the life her mother has mapped out for her as a partner in her medical practice. Kaitlyn Greenidge parallels Libertie’s struggles with autonomy with the ways Black people sought to enrich their lives and their communities in the aftermath of slavery and traces the ongoing discussions they had about the very definition of freedom. As the story moves from a free Black community in Brooklyn to the first free Black republic of Haiti, Libertie continues to run up against gender roles, colorism and class expectations. Here’s author Kaitlyn Greenidge –with a little more about the actual history that inspired Libertie
Kaitlyn Greenidge: The novel is based on the life of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, who was the first black female doctor in New York State. She had a daughter who married the son of the Episcopal Archbishop of Haiti, moved to Haiti, fell in love with the country, but her marriage was very troubled. For most of her time of her relationship, she wrote letters back to her mother, saying, "Please help me sort of get out of this situation." And then, finally, her mother helped her make a really dramatic escape from Haiti. She moved back to the U.S., lived there for the rest of her life, told her descendants how much she loved the country; but also, for the rest of her life, received these letters from her in-laws, sort of saying, "You've-- not only have you broken up this family, but you have brought shame to the entire project of black liberation, by ending this marriage."
Jo Reed: Good God.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: And so-- <laughs> yeah. So, I heard that story. I did an oral history with one of her descendants, and I was struck by that story. And I wrote a fictionalized version, with dates and names sort of changed around, but that's the basis of the story.
Jo Reed: It's an extraordinary story, in and of itself, and what you do with it is really-- it's wonderful. And there is so much in your book, I'm really not sure where to start. So, why don't we just begin with the book's title, which is the name of the protagonist, Libertie? Because this book is so much about not just attaining freedom, but knowing how to live in freedom.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, the-- it's a little heavy-handed, but her name is Libertie. You know, in the novel version of this, her mother and father-- her father has passed away, and her mother and father have met at a lecture where, sort of, they're discussing what should happen to free black people in the U.S. So, I should say the novel's timeline goes from right before the Civil War, through the Civil War and Reconstruction. And, of course, before the Civil War, there was this huge question of what would happen, if you were to free enslaved people, where would they live? There was a sort of-- I mean, it's taken as a given now that we would be a part of the U.S., but before the Civil War, it was a really pressing question, because white people did not want to live beside free black people, and assumed that wouldn't work. And so, even within free black communities, there was this question of, "Should we stay in the U.S., or should we go? You know, they established the country of Liberia, originally in West Africa, as a colony for emancipated black Americans. And Libertie's name is sort of an homage to that place that her father wanted to go to, and her mother decidedly did not.
Jo Reed: Well, it also speaks to the trauma of slavery, because we see in characters like Ben Daisy, who had escaped from enslavement, but had been so damaged by it, he just doesn't recover. And you bring this up, which isn't something we often think about. We don't think about trauma and how it lasts, not just through a person's emotional life, but intergenerationally.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Yes, exactly. You know, I worked for many years in black history museums. That's where I first heard this story that Libertie is based on. I worked for many years in black history museums, particularly ones dedicated to black abolitionists, and I was so struck by, within those sort of stories of triumph and incredible bravery and courage, we often didn't talk about the real emotional toll of living through enslavement, and then also the emotional toll of fighting against a structure as whole, dominating, just all-encompassing, as slavery was in the U.S. to-- it was obviously difficult to be a slave, but even to be an active abolitionist took an incredible emotional toll on the black people who did that political work. And so-- and we know that from sort of reading their diaries. You know, I think Sojourner Truth is probably the most famous example. She struggled with alcoholism and alcohol dependency her whole life, understandably, because of the sort of intense traumas that she lived through. But when you would try to include that part of her story-- oftentimes, when I would try to include those parts of the story, when speaking with the public, the response was like, to talk about that is to somehow denigrate that person's memory, or to somehow cheapen the history, to recognize the toll. And to me, that always felt so backwards, because the struggle is part of what makes these stories part of our legacy: that people did have these issues. People did try and reckon with trauma, came up with different coping mechanisms, some of them helpful and sustainable, that we still use today, and some of them not so much, that we still use today. And that is a part of sort of the larger human experience that was slavery. It's not outside of human experience or human understanding. Those things are very, very much a part of humanity.
Jo Reed: Exactly. It's like history. Of course history influences the present. How do you stand outside of history? Where is that place that's outside of history?
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Exactly. Exactly.
Jo Reed: Well, mothers and daughters, and the complexity of that relationship, is very centered in this book, as well. And Libertie is an only child. Her father is dead, and her mother is her world. It is the world to her. And this is also very much a coming-of-age story. Remind me how old Libertie is when we first meet her.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: She's about seven years old at the start of the novel.
Jo Reed: Yeah, so she's really young. And I have to say, personally, I'm an only child. My father died when I was very, very young, and I really understood that closeness she has with her mother. And then, as you grow up, you have to self-define, and part of that is pushing away the person who was your life. And you really, really nailed that, but it's also so complicated, because of who her mother is. My mother was just a mom, you know, but Dr. Sampson was a formidable woman. She was exceptional. And I think-- if you don't mind reading a little bit, because I think the opening of the book really sets the table for who Dr. Sampson is, and how Libertie sees her.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Of course. Sure, I'll read the first couple paragraphs.
"I saw my mother raise a man from the dead. 'It still didn't help him much, my love,' she told me. But I saw her do it all the same. That's how I knew she was magic. The time I saw Mama raise a man from the dead, it was close to dusk. Mama and her nurse, Lenore, were in her office-- Mama with her little greasy glasses on the tip of her nose, balancing the books, and Lenore banking the fire. This was the rule in Mama's office-- the fire was kept burning from dawn till after dinner, and we never let it go out completely. Even on the hottest days, when my linen collar stuck to the back of my neck and the belly of Lenore's apron was stained with sweat, a mess of logs and twigs was lit up down there, waiting. When the dead man came, it was spring. I was playing on the stoop. I'd broken a stick off the mulberry bush, so young it had resisted the pull of my fist. I'd had to work for it. Once I'd wrenched it off, I stripped the bark and rubbed the wet wood underneath on the flagstone, pressing the green into rock." That's-- and I'll stop there.
Jo Reed: Well, again, how she remembers her mother. The first sentence: " I saw my mother raise a man from the dead." That is some legacy to try to live up to.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Yeah. Yeah, and, you know, it's-- I really wanted to sort of play with that superhuman understanding of a parental figure that a small child has; and how, in a small child's imagination, that seems completely possible, that your parent has some sort of say over life and death. And part of growing up is realizing that's not the case, and letting that fantasy go. It's a really alluring fantasy to give your parental figure much more agency in the world than you have, and that a normal person has, because it takes a lot of responsibility off yourself of having to figure that stuff out, if you continually tell yourself, "Well, my mother was great at everything," or, "My mother was always able to do it." And part of what is becoming an adult in the world is recognizing the gaps in that, and letting go of that narrative to make space for yourself to grow, and for your parent to grow, as well, in your relationship with them.
Jo Reed: And again, in the case of Dr. Sampson, she truly is an exceptional person. There are very few Dr. Sampsons that are going to walk this world. And that really complicates things so much more, because Libertie is raised to be like her mother, to become a doctor. But it's not what she wants, as much as she loves and admires her mother, and wants her approval.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Right, yeah. Part of the novel is really looking at this narrative of black exceptionalism that's often closely tied to black identity in the U.S. And we-- even black people, ourselves, we sort of oftentimes buy into the myth that only the exceptional of us are worthy of respect, and that we constantly have to prove ourselves to this level of excellence that is unsustainable for all of us. Obviously, everybody is unique, but if everyone is exceptional, in a materialistic sort of understanding of the word, that's not possible. And to expect all of us to do that is setting us up for failure, and to peg our very, sort of, just basic survival on being absolutely exceptional is a real torturous kind of bargain. But it's a really seductive one, you know? It's a seductive one, to tell yourself that you and your children are going to be the ones to sort of beat the legacy of racism in the U.S.; that somehow you are going to be the exception to the rule; that somehow you'll make it so that your kid doesn't have to deal with it, but maybe everybody else will. That's such a seductive narrative in our culture, and it's really hard to not respond to it.
Jo Reed: And, of course, this is then further complicated by skin color, because Dr. Sampson could pass for white, which is partly why she was able to become a doctor. And Libertie takes after her father, who's much more dark-skinned than her mother. And that presents different sorts of constraints on the child.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah, one of the things that I really wanted to look at was this question of colorism, which comes up in our culture, I feel like, every 10 or 15 years or so. What often happens when we talk about colorism is, we talk about it sort of in terms of incredibly personal terms. You know, people tell the story of, "I was either too dark or too light for this particular group of people, or set of people." And we don't necessarily talk about it in the ways that it structurally affects people, and we definitely don't talk about it historically. What I'm so fascinated by is how subjective colorism is. Even though it dictates, really, down to rates of marriage, and people's earning ability, and the type of healthcare they receive, it's still extremely subjective. People who-- unless you're talking about someone who is extremely white-skinned with Eurocentric features, or someone who is very, very dark, like I am, in the middle there's a whole range of shades that, in some contexts, will be considered light-skinned, in other contexts will be considered dark-skinned, and yet we act like these terms are set in stone. And that psychological aspect of it is so interesting to me, and I wanted to write a novel in which it's a part of the characters' lives, but it's in a natural way. Libertie's mother is light enough to pass. She absolutely adores her dark-skinned daughter. She thinks her daughter is a prize, is sort of the best thing that has ever happened to her in the world. So the question of colorism isn't necessarily within her love or respect for her daughter, but it definitely drives a wedge between the two women, because they are being fundamentally treated in very different ways, as they move through the world. Even though both of them are having to live through being black women in the 19th century, they're having very different experiences of what that is.
Jo Reed: It's really interesting, because a lot like Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, we really are seeing this through the eyes of... well, through Libertie. I mean, it's definitely through her eyes, but it always is happening within a black community, within a black family. Clearly, there's larger white oppression and white violence. There is also the horrible riots -- race riots-- in New York, that we see from a distance. But your story is centered on the black community and their interactions with one another.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Yeah. Yeah, I wanted to-- that was sort of like a formal challenge to myself, was to set a novel in the 19th century, with black characters, about blackness, in which whiteness was really going to be really peripheral. And they live underneath sort of the really harsh systems of white supremacy, but really, the conversations are between black people themselves about what blackness was actually going to mean, and how you create communities for ourselves. I'd written a novel-- my first novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, which was about a black family that moves to a nearly all-white town to teach sign language to a chimpanzee-- and that novel was really about blackness coming right up against whiteness: What does it mean to sort of come up against whiteness in sort of this white, liberal space, where no one really wants to name or talk about race? It was really about those issues. And when I was touring with that book, I went to a high school, actually, in Boston, and I spoke with some METCO students, so students who were part of Boston's busing system, so black students who were in sort of this all-white school. And I spoke with one of them. She was about 15 years old, and she said, "Oh, this novel isn't about race." And I said, "What do you mean? Why do you-- how can you say that?" And she said, "Well, if it was about race, then I would know who was right and who was wrong, because whenever we have discussions about race in school, they try to make it seem like it's really cut-and-dry, really sort of easy, and it's good versus bad." And I thought, "Oh, my goodness. That's such a... that's such a deep understanding of all the wrong ways we have conversations like this, <laughs> and all, sort of, the wrong ways that we try and approach this subject." And it really sort of started me thinking. As I was thinking about what I was going to do next, I was thinking, "What would it mean to write about black people in the U.S., and just take that part of it away? And it's still about blackness, but why do we assume that novels about blackness"-- and I will say this purely in a literary fiction space; I don't think this is true in other artforms-- "but why do we assume that novels about blackness, or novels about race, are immediately about black people and white people together?" Which is just so strange, when you actually sort of dig down into that base assumption.
Jo Reed: Well, the other thing, because this is set a little bit before and during the Civil War, and then most of the novel is set after the Civil War, and it was obviously a very difficult time for formerly enslaved people, who came away with nothing, but it was also a time of real possibilities. And I really got that from your book. And also, the amount of work done by black people for black people was extraordinary.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Yeah. I love the Reconstruction era for that reason. I think it is so fascinating to me, and I will never be able to understand how people who were literally one or two years out of enslavement did these extraordinary things, of setting up whole towns, hospitals, schools, newspapers, mutual aid societies, parties, just everything, you know? And when we were talking sort of earlier about that question of trauma, people who had lived through amounts of trauma that are indescribable, not really understandable to most of us alive today, still had the wherewithal to sort of build these things, it's absolutely extraordinary. And I think Reconstruction is such an interesting era because, as many people have pointed out, it really does mirror our own, in that there were these extraordinary moments of black achievement, and then there were these moments of increasing white resentment, white violence, backlash, and just a fomenting of a new order of white supremacy that was going to, in a really few years, really announce itself as taking over. And because that takeover was so successful, we forget that there was that sort of brief moment of real possibility. One of the really touching and astonishing things that I read in my research was I was reading these black newspapers from Washington, D.C., which have this extraordinary explosion of a black middle class during the Reconstruction. And so there were a bunch of black newspapers coming out of that community, and in the newspapers, they were saying things like, "Oh, we just have to wait for this civil rights bill to pass"-- the 1876 civil rights bill. "We just have to wait for this civil rights bill to pass, and within a generation, the white racists will die off, because we are being educated. White people are being educated. White people are seeing what we're capable of doing. Once they see this, there's no way that racism will last past the next 15 or 20 years." And it just sounds so much like the things we've been saying for the last 100 years, <laughs> and I-- you know, that can be depressing in one light, but it can also just be, really, just tell you where the culture was at, in terms of a really sort of significant turning point, where it did feel like that was possible.
Jo Reed: The last third of the book takes place in Haiti. Libertie marries a medical student of her mother's, Emmanuel Chase, whose family is very prominent in Haiti. And Haiti had a lot of resonance for African Americans during this period. Tell me about that, and tell me about the research that you did about 19th-century Haitian politics.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Yeah, You know, when I was looking at the story that was the historical basis for this, I saw that their family had been connected to this black expatriate family in Haiti, and I thought, "That's really interesting." And then I was doing more research, of course, sort of looking at this question of what free black people would do in the U.S., Haiti, of course, came up again. Throughout the 19th century, Haiti was sort of like a threat that some white people saw as what, kind of like, the worst could happen if black emancipation happened, but it was a promise to black people. It was sort of like, "This is what could be possible if we have freedom." And, of course, the sort of tribulations of Haitian history were playing out during that whole 19th century, so people didn't necessarily know where it was headed, but they could see the promise that Haiti had. And the fear that Haiti sort of struck in white slave owners, especially, was really potent. And so, again, when I was reading those newspapers from Washington, D.C., during Reconstruction, it's all about Haiti. They're all talking about what's happening there. They're really excited when the Haitian ambassador comes to D.C. Everybody's fighting over who's going to host him for balls. They're talking about Haitian fashion. They are in it. They are part of <laughs> following that culture. And so I just loved that, as a space of imagination that I don't think, in the last 50 or 60 years or so, we've sort of lost in African-American culture. And especially in the last couple years, when I've seen online, in online discussions of the black diaspora, there's been sort of a nationalistic tone that's taken on, that is super strange to me, where people try to make an argument that somehow slavery in the U.S. was worse than slavery in the Caribbean, or people in the Caribbean didn't have slavery. Crazy arguments go on online, where I'm like, "This is just-- I don't even know where this is coming from, but it's clearly from a group of younger people who don't even know this history of the black diaspora, and how much our communities were in conversation with each other, and how people understood from the start that organizing across national borders was a necessity to defeat white supremacy, and to defeat slavery, in particular."
Jo Reed: Well, in your book Libertie, we have the story of the Chase family in Haiti, and suddenly we see a whole new set of complications: African Americans who emigrated to Haiti, basically assuming the role of colonizers, looking down on Haitian customs, culture, religion. Colorism blooms there, and a really entrenched patriarchy. Not that there wasn't one-- and isn't one-- in the United States, but it was definitely happening there. And that was to Libertie's surprise, because Emmanuel had told her, "We'll be companions."
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Yeah, I was really lucky, in that when I started to do this work, this historian at Vanderbilt University, Brandon Byrd, he published a book on black expatriates going to Haiti during Reconstruction and after. And there was a whole movement, led by black Protestant churches, to move to Haiti and convert as many Haitians as possible to different Protestant faiths. There was a real worry that democracy wasn't going to work in Haiti; Haiti wouldn't be self-governing, as long as it was a Catholic country, and as long as people there practiced voodoo. So voodoo was sort of, maybe, lesser known by, quote/unquote, a "brand name" in the 19th century. I think, sort of throughout the 19th century, people are sort of making up the myth of it, as opposed to how people are actually sort of having it in their lives. But there was this over-unding [sic]-- there was a group of black elites in the U.S. who took in all the language around U.S. nationalism; that the reason why the U.S. was so stable was because of this Protestant work ethic. All of that sort of mythology around whiteness, they took that in and sort of made a black version of that, and tried to export that to Haiti, and really move there, and did not necessarily take the country in for what it was. And the letters back are really extraordinary. I read this one letter from this woman who was writing about going to the markets in Port-au-Prince, and seeing Haitian women in the markets. And to her, instead of sort of seeing, "This is how commerce is done here, and work is done here," she writes home, and she's like, "It's-- I worry about this country, because I see the women doing so much manual labor, and for people to be civilized, women have to be at home. And so how can we make sure that Haitian women understand they have to be just at home all the time, and it's the men who should be doing physical labor?" So, really, just sort of drinking wholesale from all of the worst <laughs> ideas of history, and trying to impose it on this culture. And I just found that so fascinating and so heartbreaking, and also just-- like I said, just a part of history, I think. In sort of that ongoing quest for a space for black freedom, that free black people have had throughout this country, either setting up colonies in other countries or setting up all-black spaces within the U.S., there is always that tension of, "How much of the larger white mainstream culture's values are we going to take with us? How much of this are we going to try and do, but just with black people at the top? And is that really liberation? Is that really freedom, or is this a chance to imagine something completely new and completely better?" And I think that tension is ongoing. I think we have that tension today, in 2021, really, in so many of our issues about what we're going to do around police reform, around voting, around wealth, around what it means to gain wealth within the black community. That question underlies all of that, and we don't really-- it's a continual question that we'll never really have a full answer for.
Jo Reed: Well, the voice of Libertie herself is so particular, and the pacing of the book is so particular. I mean, it has a cadence to it. And the language is so evocative of that time, or at least a time long ago. I mean, it was so clear I was reading a novel that was set two centuries ago.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: <laughs> Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I thought a lot about language. A real sort of quote that guided me was this-- there's a Toni Morrison interview in Black Woman [sic - should be Women] Writers at Work, where she talks about parabolic language, so those words that we use constantly, that sort of the meaning has rubbed off; words like love or peace or freedom or happiness; words that when you-- if you were just to write them on the page, they just sort of sit there, because they're so blasé, and thinking about how to arrange those words onto a page or in a sentence, where you can get a reader to think up-- to come across them as if they were brand new, to come across them as if they've never heard them before. And so I don't think I-- I'm not Toni Morrison, so I do not always succeed at that, but that was sort of the... that was the guiding philosophy for a lot of it. And I read-- to that end, I read a lot of poetry, as much poetry as I could. I read the Song of Songs from the Bible a lot, and sort of thought about that for structure and image, and for certain cadence of certain lines, to try and get the language to feel both of that time, but also not sort of staid or button-up in any sort of way.
Jo Reed: Well, mothers and daughters are so central to this book, and in some ways it corresponds with your own motherhood journey. You were birthing your daughter as you were birthing the book.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Yeah, I found out I was pregnant on the day that I handed in the first draft, and then she was born when I handed in the edits. So... or I went into the hospital to have her on the day I handed in the edits. And so I was not-- I hadn't yet become a mother when I was writing it, so I was sort of having to imagine that part of it, and sort of think about what motherhood and mothering means.
Jo Reed: It's interesting. Well, your own family-- your birth family-- is pretty exceptional. You have a sister who's an historian, another who is a playwright. And your mother is a social worker. Tell me about growing up in that family of women.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: You know, I'm super close with my family, and I would say that we were given the freedom, growing up, to have really big imaginations. Nothing was off limits to imagine or to play around. And so much of our play with each other was based on storytelling and imagining and just building, sort of, worlds. So I feel really grateful and lucky to have had that, as a small child, that that was sort of just a given; and that that intense imagination was understood as an asset in life, and not something to be embarrassed about or to sort of set aside as you grew older.
Jo Reed: So, was it very early on that you decided you were going to be making a life as a writer, in both fiction and nonfiction? Because you're a nonfiction writer, as well.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: I think that it was really difficult to imagine how I would make a life as a writer. When I was younger, I was super aware of the economics of it, and how precarious they were, and I did not want to live that life, having grown up in a lot of precarity. I was really-- I did not romanticize starving artist's life at all. I was not interested in that narrative. So...
Jo Reed: I'm right there with you.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: <laughs> Yeah. So... so, for me, it was always sort of like, "Well, how do I have that creative life while making sure that I have the security that I did not get to always enjoy as a kid?" And so I held off, really, on being a full-time writer for a long time, or calling myself a writer for a long time. And it's really only in the last five years, since I published the first book, that I have sort of consistently written this much. And I published my first book when I was 35, so I had a whole life of not writing, even though, sort of, I was writing for myself. But I had a whole life of not publishing and not publicly living as a writer, and definitely not making a living as a writer, so it feels a little bit strange to claim that title now.
Jo Reed: So that's about when you were able to quit the day job and just devote yourself to writing, about five years ago?
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Well, yeah. I was really lucky in that I won a Whiting Award for my first novel, and so that felt like a jolt of confidence in the world, that people were interested in what I had to say, and that I had the space to sort of work on it. And I was still-- I still taught. I was teaching. <laughs> But-- and I was also doing my nonfiction work. But it sort of felt like, "Okay, people... there is an audience somewhere out there for the things that I'm writing, and for the things that I'm interested in," which did not always feel like it was the case, for the first decade that I was sort of thinking about writing, and thinking about the things that I wanted to write about.
Jo Reed: Well, you also received a 2016 NEA Literature Fellowship. Congratulations.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Thank you.
Jo Reed: What did that allow you to do?
Kaitlyn Greenidge: It allowed me to do my research around Haiti. I was able to take the trip to Haiti with that money. I was also able to have a little bit of a cushion as I figured out what... as I figured out the transition from full-time work to doing nonfiction work and teaching. Really, it was like another jolt of confidence to be able to do that. I cannot stress enough. You know, I'm not the type of writer who writes runaway bestsellers, or writes really super-viral articles, or things like that. I write things that are really idiosyncratic and sort of to my own weird, demented tastes, and so it's really wonderful to know that someone thinks that that has value and is important.
Jo Reed: And then, finally, what's next?
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Oh, that's a great question. I’ve just finished a story about a woman who, during the pandemic, she goes to a sex party in Brooklyn, and she's the oldest woman there. And it explores what that means, and what's she's doing with her life. And it was really fun to write. It's Departure from Libertie. It's set in the present day. It comes out with Scribd, which is a subscription story-based service, and it'll come out in July. <clears throat>
Jo Reed: Well, I look forward to it. Kaitlyn, thank you. Thank you for writing this book. I'm a pretty quick reader, and I kept putting the book down, because I just wanted it to... I wanted to savor it.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Oh! That's the best compliment. Thank you so much. <laughs> I love to hear that. <laughs> Thank you.
Jo Reed: Not at all…thank you!
That’s author and NEA Literature Fellow Kaitlyn Greenidge –we were talking about her novel Libertie You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed—stay safe and thanks for listening.
Celebrate Juneteenth with this conversation with Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of the novel Libertie. An historical novel, Libertie was inspired in part by the true story of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward who in 1869 became the first Black female doctor in New York and then co-founded of a hospital for women in Brooklyn. Greenidge shifts the timeline to before, during, and after the Civil War and creates the character of Dr. Kathy Sampson—a widow who is raising her daughter Libertie to walk in her footsteps in a Black community in Brooklyn, regardless of the girl’s wishes. As she runs up against gender roles, class and parental expectations, and colorism, Libertie seeks to create the life she wants. Kaitlyn Greenidge parallels Libertie’s struggles with autonomy to the ways Black people sought to enrich their lives and their communities in the aftermath of slavery, and she traces their ongoing discussions about what freedom would look like for Black people in America. In this podcast, Greenidge talks about writing an historical novel, the possibilities that Reconstruction offered Black people and the country as a whole, her decision to set her novel solely in Black communities and make white society peripheral to the story, and the pervasive and ongoing challenges of colorism.