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In 'Libertie,' Kaitlyn Greenidge Lays Out Many Definitions Of Freedom

When writer Kaitlyn Greenidge heard about a 19th century woman who became one of the first Black female doctors in New York state, she knew she wanted to write about her.

We continue our summer fiction series with the novel "Libertie,” about a girl named Libertie and her mother, a doctor living in post-Civil War Brooklyn.

The narrative of freedom weaves throughout "Libertie." Greenidge, who lives outside of Boston, said freedom is a fascinatingly subjective concept.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, author: I wanted to create characters who have as many different relationships to freedom and understandings of freedom and are living as many different versions of freedom as possible that Libertie encounters. So Libertie is constantly turning this question over and over to herself of what freedom could possibly be for her, because in many ways, she's an extremely privileged character.

She's a free born Black girl in New York state right before the Civil War. Her mother is a doctor. They live in relative ease and comfort. She's well educated. But Libertie is also a dark-skinned Black woman in America and so whatever room she walks into, she's always going to be momentarily, socially, assumed to be at sort of the bottom of the power dynamics.

Because of those pieces of her identity, she's experiencing freedom even differently than her own mother and that's one of the conflicts that they come up against. Her mother's lighter than she is and, in fact, can often read as a white woman.

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: So Libertie — she's also seeking something that is what young women try to seek anyhow. Who are they? You know, to get out from under the weight of the home they grew up in. She’s feeling a lot of pressure because her mother is this extraordinary person. And I think teenagers, in general, and maybe mothers might identify with the relationship they had. Even I, as a white woman, identify with this relationship and I wonder what you think of that.

Yeah, I mean, I wanted to write a mother daughter relationship in which the two clearly, deeply love each other and are close in certain ways, but also fundamentally don't understand each other. I wanted to write that while also sort of recognizing these real rifts that can rise up between family members, even when both people sort of have the best intentions of how to understand and work with each other.

"Libertie" is Kaitlyn Greenidge's most recent novel.
Credit courtesy
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The cover of Kaitlyn Greenidge's most recent novel.

  And also when her mother opens up a hospital where white women come to give birth. And there's a particular moment where Libertie is horrified by having to help her mother and also that her mother accepts these these women into her care.

So in the book, Libertie's mother, she opens this hospital and to pay for the hospital, she makes sure that it is integrated. So it's treating both white women and Black women, which would have — even after the Civil War — would have been really unheard of at the time.

And this is partly based on truth of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward. She's was well known for opening Brooklyn Women and Children's Homoeopathic Hospital, which was an integrated hospital in the 1880s. When I read that detail about her life, I was of course impressed, but then I was also thinking, like, what would it be like to sit in an integrated waiting room in the 1880s knowing all that we know about sort of the pain and horror of Reconstruction and the formulation of certain ideologies around white supremacy at that time.

And so from there, I started to try and create the scene of her mother taking care of these white women patients who are willing to tolerate her mother as a doctor but because Libertie is so much darker, really reject her as a caregiver. And it's the point where Libertie realizes she can't follow her mother's path. The wider world is going to be is going to react to her much differently than her mother.

The latter part of "Libertie" takes place largely in Haiti. And just to note, we're speaking in the weeks after the assassination of the president of Haiti in his home. You wrote about this division among people who are Black then living in the U.S. then, and then those who were living in Haiti, who may have gone there from the states to seek freedom. There was something very resonant in this, what is historical and also historical fiction.

I think Haiti, in particular, is so important because when I was doing research on this book what sort of came back to me again and again is how much Haiti dominated the imaginations of Americans in the 19th century.

Both Black and white Americans were obsessed with Haiti, inspired by Haiti, scared of Haiti, and the Haitian Revolution truly was a blueprint. It truly was something that really shook up the entire world and before the backlash against it and the fears of white Southern slave owners took over, there was at least sort of a brief moment where the press and people thinking about it really were excited about this absolutely astounding revolution that was happening. But we don't necessarily contextualize Haiti and its history in that way at all.

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