In 2010, Kaitlyn Greenidge was working at Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of a free Black community that was established in 1838. While there, she met Ellen Holly, a soap opera actress and descendant of Susan Smith McKinney Steward, a doctor who was born in Weeksville and practiced medicine there from 1870 to 1895. She was the third Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.
Holly told Greenidge the story of Steward’s daughter (which Holly recounts in her 1996 memoir, One Life), who in 1911 married into a prominent Black American family living in Haiti. When the daughter’s marriage fell apart, Steward traveled to Haiti to rescue her.
Greenidge, speaking via Zoom from her home in Massachusetts, says she was immediately drawn in by the story, especially as an aspiring fiction writer; she was enrolled in the MFA program at CUNY Hunter at the time. “I thought, if I ever get a chance to write novels, I want to write a novel about that,” she recalls.
For years, Greenidge kept the story in her back pocket, working on another novel animated by questions of Black history. That book, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, published in 2016 by Algonquin, tells the story of a Black family who, in 1990, move to a research institute in western Massachusetts to take part in a science experiment wherein they raise a chimpanzee. The novel moves back and forth in time, shedding light on the institute’s dark history of eugenics and drawing connections between past and present forms of exploitation.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman proved an auspicious debut. It was a finalist for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and in 2017 Greenidge won a Whiting Award. Janet Maslin, writing in the New York Times, called the book “gripping,” observing that Greenidge raises the question of whether her characters “will learn from past horrors or become so dysfunctional that they merely relive them.”
After completing We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Greenidge drew up plans for several fiction projects, among them an ambitious “three-part cycle series” about mass incarceration. But with the encouragement of Carrie Howland, her agent, she returned to the story she’d heard from Holly. Her second novel, Libertie (Algonquin, Mar. 2021), provides a fictionalized retelling of that story from the daughter’s perspective.
The book, which opens on the eve of the Civil War, follows heroine Libertie from her childhood in Weeksville through the first months of her marriage in Haiti. As a young girl, Libertie reveres her mother, Cathy Sampson, a doctor who provides medical care to the members of the Weeksville community and who, after the war, establishes a women’s hospital there. When her mother begins treating white patients, though, Libertie perceives it as a betrayal.
Libertie’s anger at her mother follows her to Cunningham College, a fictional abolitionist-run school for Black students in Ohio. There, feeling pressured to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Libertie enrolls in science courses, only to wind up flunking out. After returning to Brooklyn, she meets Emmanuel Chase, a medical school graduate who has been studying homeopathy under her mother.
When Emmanuel proposes to Libertie, offering her a life in Haiti, she accepts, hoping she’s at last found her role in the world. However, after moving in with Emmanuel’s inhospitable, secret-filled family, she finds that wifehood in Haiti is unfulfilling.
Greenidge honors the basics of the story of Steward and her daughter but also departs from it in important ways. To accommodate a story line about a Black female undertaker who helped people escape slavery by hiding them in coffins, she decided to set the events of the story about 20 years before they actually occurred.
When fictionalizing historical events, Greenidge says, she seeks to strike a balance between the demands of fact and the demands of narrative. It’s a “mixture between where the research guides you and where the craft guides you, where making a dynamic book guides you. If a change can complicate what people think of the past, or their understanding of the past, or their understanding of how people deal with certain issues, then it’s a change I’m happy to make.”
When researching the novel, Greenidge turned to Penguin’s Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers, which in particular helped her to imagine Libertie’s time at Cunningham College and the friends she meets there. She also read as much fiction, nonfiction, and scholarship dealing with Haiti and Haitian culture as she could. And she tapped her sister, Kerri Greenidge, a historian. “Whenever I couldn’t find a primary source, I had a human Wikipedia,” she says.
The story of Steward and her daughter offered Greenidge an opportunity to explore a theme of particular interest to her: care. As a doctor and community leader, Libertie’s mother practices an admirable form of care. But Libertie finds, too, that care in family and romantic relationships can be all-consuming, leading her at one point to decide that care is “monstrous.”
“A lot of literary fiction is very interested in alienation and being the outsider,” Greenidge says. “All of that is good and worthy of talking about. But I think there’s a greater challenge in writing about care and not having it come across as saccharine.”
While working on Libertie, Greenidge took inspiration from a quote by the writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman, which Greenidge’s friend, the artist Ja’Tovia Gary, has built an installation around: “Care is the antidote to violence.”
“When you look at what Black people did in the years right after slavery,” Greenidge says, “what they did was all acts of care. They set up schools, they set up hospitals.” They also published newspapers that included primers for those who couldn’t read fluently. “That’s such a radical act of care and kindness. That’s 10 times galaxy brain ahead of anything we’re doing today.”
Amid a pandemic, a novel preoccupied with questions of care seems destined to resonate. Referring to Black communities in the 19th century, Greenidge says, “I think there’s a tradition there that can inspire us, and hopefully will inspire us in the very hard times that we have ahead.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York City.