Black Motherhood as Literary Creation: Talking with Kaitlyn Greenidge
Based in part on the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the US, the second novel by Kaitlyn Greenidge offers a deeply felt, meticulously researched exploration of our country’s troubled racial history that has given birth to our tumultuous racial present. Published on March 30 by Algonquin Books, Libertie follows Libertie Sampson, a freeborn Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, whose doctor mother expects her to practice alongside her, but who yearns for a future fully her own. Greenidge’s novel interrogates ideas of motherhood, romantic love, generational healing, and Black liberation and asks the universal question, “Is there really only one way to have an autonomous life?”
Greenidge has an MFA from Hunter College and is the recipient of a Whiting Award, a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin, 2016), which dissects the legacy of institutionalized racism, was a New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award finalist and shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Greenidge is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and her nonfiction has appeared in the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal.
Greenidge and I spoke about how Haiti captured African Americans’ imaginations during Reconstruction, the complexities of labeling a work “historical fiction,” and the relationship of Black motherhood to literary and intellectual creation.
The Rumpus: The book’s acknowledgements inform us that Libertie was inspired by an oral history recording you encountered while working at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn. Could you go deeper into that origin story?
Kaitlyn Greenidge: The Weeksville Heritage Center was my first job when I moved to Brooklyn fifteen years ago. I worked there for a number of years and had a few different roles, but one of them was helping to restart their oral history program. We did an oral history with a descendant of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, one of the original residents of Weeksville, a free Black community in nineteenth-century Brooklyn. Her descendant is a famous soap opera actress named Ellen Holly who has written about her own family history in her memoir, One Life. So, she told us this beautiful and inspiring story about Dr. McKinney Steward and her daughter, who had married into this illustrious family of African American expatriates in Haiti, and how her mother helped her escape what turned out to be a very unhappy marriage.
When I heard that story ten or eleven years ago, I thought, oh wow, that’s so fascinating, that would make a wonderful novel. So, when I was trying to think of what to write after We Love You, Charlie Freeman, I was talking with my agent, Carrie Howland, and she said, you know, that idea seems manageable. I’m a pretty ambitious person, so I had been coming to her with all these ambitious three-novel cycle ideas, and she said, let’s just focus on this story. And I’m so glad she did.
Rumpus: Publishers Weekly’s starred review calls Libertie and your first novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, “genius work[s] of radical historical fiction.” How would you personally categorize Libertie’s genre?
Greenidge: Labels and categories are so difficult because I know people feel very strongly about them and like to hold onto them. I don’t understand labeling books that take place in the past as historical fiction because to me that denotes a really specific type of novel. But then I think, too, Hilary Mantel is historical fiction technically, but people still find resonance with her work. I don’t know, I think it’s probably myself, my own insecurities, putting something onto the idea of historical fiction. Of course, probably when I say this a bunch of people are going to try to cancel me over saying I hate historical fiction because I don’t actually! I really love reading novels set in the past, but I’m thinking about it a lot right now. I’m rereading The Age of Innocence, which is technically historical fiction because it is set in the 1870s but came out in 1919, and the whole point is that it is about a time that doesn’t exist anymore. So, I’m always really curious about which novels get that label and which ones don’t.
Rumpus: Can you tell us about your research process prior to writing Libertie?
Greenidge: I had worked in Black history museums for about ten years in total, so I already knew a lot about Black history, free Black communities in the North, and Reconstruction-era history. Reconstruction is a period that a lot of people say—these days it’s become almost a cliché—is a direct mirror to our own time. The level of civic violence, white backlash, extreme restriction of Black voting rights alongside extreme expansion of Black achievement really mirrors our own last eight to ten years, but most people don’t really learn much about it because the story isn’t one that fits into America’s idea of itself. In Reconstruction, the bad guys won, and that just set the tone of history for the next hundred years. So, I really wanted to explore that part of US history because I find it so fascinating, and the complications around Black people defining freedom for ourselves is really interesting.
In my research, I also looked at Haitian history, the founding of Black colleges, Black spirituals, Black nineteenth-century travelers, Haitian Voodoo, and, because Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward was a homeopath, homeopathy. As a medical practice in the nineteenth century, it was closely aligned with progressive ideals, so people who were part of the abolitionist movement found themselves involved in these health-alternative or progressive health circles, and because it was a newer area of medicine, schools admitted Black people and women. That is how Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward in the historical record was admitted to a homeopathic school in New York. They didn’t know she was Black because of her light skin, and then once she was in the school and they figured it out, she argued to stay. I became super interested in those twin things: that intense interest in making the world better and this interest in health and healing, and the metaphors around that, like what it means for a community to heal.
Rumpus: The book takes place partly in Haiti. How did you go about researching nineteenth-century Haitian politics and its impact on Black Americans during Reconstruction?
Greenidge: In 2018 and 2019, I had fellowships with the Radcliffe Institute and with Princeton, and at Radcliffe I was able to dive deeply into Haitian history. Haiti has a very robust literary tradition, but because I don’t speak French or Creole, I didn’t always have access to all the sources or information I needed. But the Haitian historian Malick W. Ghachem happened to be a Radcliffe Fellow while I was there, so he was super helpful. I’m also really lucky there are other great scholars in the US studying this period right now, like Brandon Byrd at Vanderbilt University, who wrote a wonderful study of Black ex-patriates in Haiti in the 1870s and 1880s. It’s lost to us now in 2021, but for a good chunk of the twentieth century and life after the end of slavery in the US, Black Americans were intensely interested in Haiti. They saw it as an experiment that could prove Black people were able to self-govern. And as Haiti succeeded, they saw it as an argument that they should be a part of the American project and the American nation. I wanted to revive that lost history in the novel and counteract some of the reasoning around Black history that thinks of Black Americans as somehow more American than we are part of an African diaspora.
I also visited Haiti in person for about four or five days in February 2018, which was extremely helpful. I went to Port-au-Prince and Jacmel. What is so wonderful about Haiti is how everyone there knows their history and is so deeply steeped in it. You can be walking along, and someone will say, that is where the Polish soldiers came in 1815 to help us out with the revolution and their descendants are still here, and that’s why those people over there have green eyes. It’s really fascinating, that deep understanding and connection to history and place. It’s also always fascinating to go to countries that are so geographically close to the US and have had horrible relationships with the US, and to hear their understanding of and how they talk about that history.
Rumpus: Black history as it is written often depicts the trailblazers, like Libertie’s mother. But Libertie is a fallible human whose response to the injustices she faces—fear, rage, depression, self-loathing—is a proportional and likely more common one overall. Was it important to you to highlight this “human” aspect of Libertie’s journey toward freedom and self- actualization?
Greenidge: I worked in Black history museums for a long time and that was one thing that would always come up, that Black history is written around people overcoming the odds, but we know not everyone can overcome the odds because they are the odds. And overcoming the odds is extremely taxing! We have all these people we read about who were “the first”: the first Black woman doctor, the first one to do this or that. Being first is emotionally violent in many ways. From my own family history, we integrated a white suburb up here in Massachusetts and the emotional toll of that across generations is still unfolding and is extremely intense. I don’t think we talk about that when we talk about the firsts. We just focus on it as if it’s some benign story of triumph, like you cross a hurdle, and not that you psychologically battle people who wanted you dead 24/7 for most of your life, which is very different.
So, in our history, I always wondered about those people who didn’t want to play this game. Who felt like, this game actually enrages me! I’m tired and I don’t feel like I can do it and I want to be able to say I don’t feel like I can do it. But we don’t get those stories. I think that’s why a lot of Black people don’t like reading Black history, especially younger people, because it feels like there is such a focus on “inspire, uplift, inspire, uplift!” It was important to me that the character of Libertie got to make big, potentially life-altering mistakes, and she didn’t die from it. I wanted her character to be an exploration of that. While her mother is this consummate Black achiever, Libertie is definitely not that, and I wanted her not being that to really mean something. But I also wanted her to still be able to have a full life with joy, interests and friends, longing and desire and all those other things that make her human.
Rumpus: As the mother of a daughter, do you feel like your own personal experience provided you with insight into the character of Libertie’s mother and the relationship between the two?
Greenidge: Actually, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter on the day I handed in my first draft of this book, and she was born three days after I handed in the second draft. She has really grown up with this book along the way. But I did think a lot about what it means to be a mother, and the expectations of the role, both internal and external, and I thought a lot particularly about Black motherhood. Probably one of the most famous novels that explores what it is to be a Black mother in America is Beloved. That novel didn’t really influence this one, but what did were a lot of Toni Morrison’s interviews in which she talks about motherhood as a form of freedom, particularly for Black women. She says that Black women don’t get to really self-actualize in this country, but through the care and raising of our children, getting to decide how they are going to live their days, what we impart to them, what we want them to value, we can really exercise and imagine other worlds.
That sort of alternate take was really refreshing because so much of the literature around motherhood is that it’s drudgery, it’s awful, it’s the patriarchy killing us, our bodies are dying, who would want to do it, this is for suckers. I tried to read as much as I could, not just for myself but also for the characters of Libertie and her mother, Dr. Sampson. I tried to read women whose ambition was not thwarted by motherhood, or who at least didn’t credit motherhood with thwarting their ambition, like Morrison, Grace Paley, Lynn Nottage. There are writers out there who make this point, and I wanted to explore that side of motherhood as another form of literary creation but also as intellectual creation, and this very deep relationship you have to someone where you are shaping and developing them and eventually exchanging and sharing ideas.
Rumpus: Naming is another essential piece of motherhood. Your choice of the name Libertie is obviously deeply symbolic, but many other names in the book—Experience, Emmanuel, Ben Daisy—are also unique. Was the process of coming up with these names meaningful for you? How did you think of them?
Greenidge: It was different for each character. For [Libertie’s college friends] Experience and Louisa, I was reading one slave narrative where they were talking about all the different names that this family of fourteen had. Some of them were biblical and some of them were obviously words they had picked out from either the Bible or some place that just struck them, things that we don’t normally name people. And with Black people and naming, of course, it’s a really fraught history in the US. When we name ourselves, we are often ridiculed for it, but we come up with absolutely beautiful names for ourselves and we have throughout our time here. I really liked that part of it.
With the character of Ben Daisy, I was thinking a lot about how much of our nicknames for people in our community are often very cruel. Just speaking from my own experience, I had an uncle who had an extra finger that got deformed, and when we were kids, we just used to call him “Uncle Hooky.” It wasn’t until I was like thirty years old when I was like, wait, we were calling him that because his hand looked like a hook, and that’s kind of messed up. And I don’t even know what that guy’s name was; we just knew him as Uncle Hooky. If you were to point him out to me in a picture right now, I would say, yeah, Uncle Hooky, but if my daughter were to ask me what his name was and where he was born, I couldn’t answer those questions. I wanted to explore that. And the name comes from a place of deep love but also a deep dark humor of how messed up this world is. I wanted to explore that with the character of Mr. Ben, later Ben Daisy, who is not a pariah within the community but more like the open wound the community has around slavery.
Rumpus: Reading your lyrical prose got me thinking about how the act of creating art can invite transcendence. Like, when Libertie sings with Louisa and Experience, she feels like she has “entered something greater than my sorry, bitter self.” Does writing make you feel a similar way? Is there something else in your life that does?
Greenidge: For me, that something is probably music, like for Libertie. With writing, I hope I get to that point. I write a lot about the past, so I don’t know if it’s really transcendent stuff, but that is what is so beautiful about the arts, any sort—visual art, music, literature, dance—that sense of transportation and that sense of being both distinctly within yourself but also being connected to something so much bigger than yourself.
Photograph of Kaitlyn Greenidge by Syreeta McFadden.