There’s an old-school rule about the technique of fiction writing that claims the first sentence of a story should tell its whole plot. I don’t believe in hard-and-fast rules about fiction anymore, but in examples where that maxim is true, I’ve felt rejuvenated once I was done reading them. There’s something enlivening about finishing a book and going back to the beginning, Finnegans Wake-style, and finding the beginning told the end, and vice versa. The sensation also has to do with feeling like the writer made every sentence matter, which in a book of several hundred pages is like pulling off a magic trick.
I had that experience after finishing Libertie, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s latest novel, which is based on a true story and concerns the omnipresent pressures of working in the wake of history. The novel’s first sentence—“I saw my mother raise a man from the dead”—is incredibly crafty. There are many reborn men in this book, in both literal and figurative terms, but there are far more women who take action, who get things going, who revive what used to live. A subtlety of that opening sentence is that by dusting off this story from the archives, Greenidge has, in a way, brought someone—many people—back to life. And is it remarkable that the book’s last sentence, in the acknowledgments section, is a dedication to Greenidge’s daughter? If she reads this book one day, she will see that her mother has figuratively raised people from the dead, and the archives where they now live, and maybe she will think some variation of that first sentence. I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.
Extratextual notes aside, Libertie is about the interstices between life and death. The novel concerns a woman who lives many different lives in one, and who insists on her right to live, really live, in dead marriages and homes where coffins regularly appear. Although it is set approximately forty years before the concept took hold, Libertie clarifies why some people became so invested in the early 20th-century idea of the Talented Tenth—the ten percent of Black American men enlisted to uplift the race through college education, professional work, and social advocacy—and why others struggled mightily with the concept. Notably, the notion was first conceived by white philanthropists and popularized in an essay by W.E.B. DuBois, and yet, as Libertie explores, even though the very notion of a Talented Tenth excluded them, Black women did so much of that heavy lifting uncredited.
The novel prompts an important question: Who is really the vanguard of the race, the professional class or the no- and low-wage labor force that the bustling Black doctors, dentists, and attorneys have historically relied upon? And it reveals the trouble with having to be part of a vanguard at all, how the act of going first and going best can constrict real personal freedom, if indeed liberation means thriving outside of a white supremacist, patriarchal context. The book is interested in how that status can bind, elevating the perspective of upwardly mobile Black people above their lower-class counterparts. Libertie is inspired by the lives of Anna McKinney Holly, a middle class Black woman who fell in love, got married, and moved to Haiti, and then escaped back to America with her children in tow. Her mother Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward was the first Black woman doctor in New York state, and only the third Black American woman to earn a medical degree. Greenidge’s novel makes an argument about what it’s like to live in the shade of achievement, and how a young Black woman resists the inexorable pull of making Black history—and American history, in this case—in lieu of fulfilling her own dreams. Greenidge’s novel quietly and insistently critiques any notion of striving that comes at the stake of authentic personal inquiry, and which disempowers or marginalizes Black women.
When the novel begins, it is 1860, Libertie Sampson is eleven years old, and she works as an apprentice to her mother. Dr. Cathy Sampson is the only Black woman physician in Kings County and the daughter of a pig farmer whose labor made her medical dreams possible. She serves Weeksville, Brooklyn’s free-Black settlement, as a family doctor and homeopath. Dr. Sampson, who is very fair-skinned, had not intentionally passed, exactly, to get into medical school. But she hadn’t divulged her race either, knowing that that disclosure would be an obstacle to her enrollment. This mutability, of which phenotype is only one form, is a major undercurrent of this narrative: both passing and the act of withholding exactly how one experiences the world are strategies for survival and professional striving. Dr. Sampson prefers action to rumination, scientific nomenclature and medical jargon to poetry. She rarely shares her feelings with Libertie. Instead, she discourages her daughter’s interest in spirituality, which is a subject Libertie gravitates to after the death of a beloved member of the community. That is how Dr. Sampson takes care of her daughter, who is her only living family. She focuses on the concrete, the things that can’t be taken away, like a college degree, and encourages Libertie to do the same.
This isn’t Greenidge’s first foray into historical fiction. Her debut novel, 2017’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman, begins in 1990 and concerns a Black family tapped to participate in an experiment at the Toneybee Institute, a research hub built on eugenicist ethics. The Freeman family, comprised of precocious Charlotte and Callie, and parents Laurel and Charles, are tasked with teaching sign language to Charlie, a chimpanzee. Although the book is primarily set in the early ‘90s—and partly in the present-day—sections of the book take place in 1929 and tell the story of Nymphadora, a woman connected to the fictional Toneybee Institute. Nymphadora, who is thirty-six when her sections begin, is apart of a family of “Northern Negroes, born of at least two generations of freed men,” and is initiated into the Stars of the Morning, a women’s auxiliary group whose members pride themselves on being “good Christian Negro women.” While Libertie is told entirely in first-person, Charlie Freeman alternates between first and third, offering a braided narrative weaved from multiple perspectives and points in the Institute’s timeline. Still, both novels depict loneliness with precision, and Greenidge’s characters sometimes employ a kind of wry melancholy to manage their complicated feelings: a laugh that gives way to full-on sobbing, a raucous joke formed from unarticulated grief. In Charlie Freeman, Laurel grew up one of the only young Black girls in Maine, and Nymphadora, who’s orphaned, and ex-Christian, copes with what she’s lost in a small way by making dirty versions of nursery rhymes she was indoctrinated with as a kid and then singing them to herself before bed. “It is enough to laugh,” she says, “if I did not always feel like weeping.” Between “first-Black,” “somewhat only Black,” and the pressures of uplift, Greenidge’s characters are frequently burdened with the expectation to represent the race, and they use their imaginations to break out. Or rather, they burrow deeper within themselves, exploring the contours of their consciousness, the only truly private place that’s accessible to them.
The complications of inside and outside freedom are reflected in the author’s placemaking in this latest novel. In Libertie, Greenidge’s Weeksville is a fledgling place, and she’s successful in staging the settlement’s nascent sensibility. In her hands, the community, like Libertie, can become anything. This on-the-cusp promise is illustrated in Greenidge’s descriptions of the neighborhood’s dusty dirt roads which are yet to be fixed and paved, and also in the multiplicity of Weeksville’s establishments. The buildings seem utilitarian partly out of necessity, and partly out of creativity: a hybrid general store and pharmacy also doubles as a halfway house for self-emancipated people; Libertie’s house is a home, a medical practice, and a hideaway for the formerly enslaved. Sampson Lane, the road to Libertie’s family homestead, is given their surname because they’re the only ones living on that street; in keeping with this incipient energy, the road creates a crossroads that stems to Weeksville’s main thoroughfare and is described as “narrow and only just cut through the brush.” (In addition to being merely a physical descriptor, might the lane’s narrowness—and its location near a fork in the road—also portend the limited pathways Dr. Sampson prescribes to Libertie?)
In a 2017 interview with Yahdon Israel, Greenidge described history as an “active narrative that people put together and talk about and constantly pull apart and put back together,” and her novels are creative interventions into that active history. In Libertie especially, Greenidge engages the notion of an “active narrative” more directly by devoting an entire novel to someone who, like her real-life corollary Anna McKinney Holly, most certainly would have been sidelined in other texts, especially those that foreground history that’s already been canonized. Here, Greenidge is activating untold and little-told narratives, and characters like Libertie are at the center of that activation. The work of a writer crafting a historical novel seems not unlike what it might be like to be the well-adjusted daughter of a famous, important person; one is always having to consult and probably admire your forebear—in this case various kinds of histories—but ultimately exercise the confidence to do your own thing.
Our protagonist is named after the dream of her dead father, a traveling preacher who believed in Black liberation and had a late-in-life fixation on Liberia, the country which began auspiciously in the early 1820s as a controversial settlement for Black people who’d been enslaved in America. Libertie is overwhelmed by all of that, and by her constant juxtaposition with her light-skinned mother, the way the people in her neighborhood call her “Black Gal.” She is attuned to the fungibility of liberty, even though she was born free in the North. She sees the wounded backs of those who “stole away” to New York, the burns of Black orphans attacked by whites in Manhattan, and the psychic trappings that keep some folks addicted to corn liquor and fantasies. Dr. Sampson wants Libertie to take over her medical practice at some undetermined point in the future. Libertie adores her mother, but is unsure. She learns about plant names and what herbs are good for, while also realizing the limits of homeopathy and conventional medicine that only heals the body.
The novel’s action begins with the introduction of Ben, a self-emancipated Black man who escaped from a plantation in Maryland and ran away to Philadelphia. He comes to Kings County in a coffin, assisted by a friend of the doctor’s who runs a clandestine service for the enslaved under the front of a funeral parlor. The small group shows up at Dr. Sampson’s clinic seeking treatment and a place to hide out. Historically, there have been other people seeking to free themselves under clever means, like Henry “Box,” Brown, who mailed himself to abolitionists in Philly, but this method of delivering people to safer pastures mimics the condition of many of their spirits: they feel half-dead, or mostly-dead, or, at the very least, not quite full of life. As Libertie explains,
It was overwhelming enough to care for bodies that had turned against themselves, that had sickened and soured on miasmas and disease, that had collapsed under the burden of fevers and chills. It was still another thing to care for someone like Mr. Ben, who was of whole body, I knew, but of broken spirit. But Mama said when the spirit broke like his had, it was not our realm.
Broken spirits are, however, the realm of the novel, and Greenidge is sensitive to and non-judgmental of her characters’ various maladies, without offering apologies for the prejudices that co-exist within them, and which once externalized, sometimes produce pain in others. There is a whole roomful of people who live in the back of a hybrid general store and pharmacy in downtown Weeksville, most of them escapees, who have yet to heal, who don’t know how to be free, even among their peers. This is arguably a sickness that more or less afflicts every character in the book, although Libertie’s heroine is one of the most willing to question and name the contours of freedom. At her mother’s house, she even goes as far to ask a tableful of Black visitors what the word freedom means, much to Dr. Sampson’s chagrin (the meaning is supposed to be obvious for Black people in Civil War-era America). Libertie is her mama’s girl, the clinic’s mascot, the neighborhood’s symbol of possibility. But she longs to belong to herself, which is a much more rewarding proposition, albeit a trickier and more confusing one. Ben’s arrival demonstrates to Libertie that physical manumission from slavery is just the beginning of self-possession, since everyone else in her orbit is too busy working and accomplishing to verbalize any internal, individuated struggles they might have. Via a journey that takes her to college in Ohio and abroad to Jacmel, Haiti, Libertie desperately tries to figure out how to claim and foster her own spirit before it breaks.
Libertie’s epigraph is “Not all wounds heal,” a translation of a Haitian Kreyol phrase. The novel is like the psychological analogue of an illustration in a medical textbook—to open it and pore over the 300-odd pages that follow that quote, is to see inside of a person, to see past skin into sinew and bone and blood and synapse, in more detail than one can glimpse just in the mind’s eye. Given the intolerable conditions, living in the early Jim Crow years was like being basically cauterized from head to toe; Greenidge’s prose shows the wounds and the burned-over scars. For some of the freepeople she imagines, the lesions were literal, and for others the marks were impressed in memory, and therefore less perceptible. This dynamic is reflected in the observations Libertie does not share with her mother. “The world is in the burning between the thighs of the colored women who seek you out for comfort,” she thinks. “The world is in the wounds on the heads of the fathers, and in the eyes we treated, burnt by smoke from the fires the white mobs set. I can measure the world. Can you?”
Libertie follows a tradition by other Black writers, many of them women, who have written eloquently about grief, loneliness, and the effort of living in the aftermath of slavery—and how that work coincides with both individual selfhood and collective striving. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the standard-bearer. In Gayl Jones’s novels Corregidora, Eva’s Man, and The Healing, recovery is central to the plot and personal development of her witty, verbose, bruised heroines who are generations away from slavery yet still in its grips. In Morrison’s Sula, the character Shadrach, a veteran who suffers PTSD, invents National Suicide Day to give members of his all-Black community a way to openly discuss mental illness. The protagonist of Alice Walker’s Meridian is a civil rights activist who grows sick with both a mysterious illness and, Walker implies, the disappointment of patriarchy, which manifests in her organizing work and her relationship with a fellow activist. And of course, there is Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, a novel about an activist who has attempted suicide that famously begins, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” Libertie‘s main concern is not if its heroine wants to be well, but what wellness truly is, and how she can come to experience it.
Libertie is the product of Greenidge’s archival research and work collecting oral histories from descendants of Weeksville’s original residents. For that reason, it also sits alongside nonfiction like Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, which investigates matrices of grief in Black art and experience, and the cultural historian and writer Saidiya Hartman’s works, which employ critical fabulation, a practice that involves applying an imaginative approach to archival material, best explored in her books Lose Your Mother and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, and which helps Hartman to “resurrect forgotten history, lost lives, the millions of stories that were lost in the Middle Passage.” In a 1986 interview with scholar Audrey T. McCluskey for Women’s Studies in Indiana, Toni Morrison explained that she saw potential in the past, not creative foreclosure. “I was talking to a woman writer a couple of years ago and she said that all her hopes in her work were in the future,” she remarked. “And I said that all mine were in the past…There were things that were already there that had either been buried, discredited, or never looked at.” Morrison thought this pattern true especially of Black literature, because it’s still relatively new. It’s telling that even though Libertie has been published thirty-five years after Morrison outlined her interest in the past, Black writers are still excavating the “things that were already there.”
The book also concerns the weight that Black women are asked to bear, as our intersecting identities ensure that we are usually doubly buried by the biases of historians. An early exchange between Ben and Dr. Sampson bears this out:
He propped himself up on his elbows. “This the worst pain I ever felt. I was whupped till my back was ribbons when I was a younger man, and I thought that was dying, but this is different. It feels like there’s a hole in me, in the very center of me, and the wind’s running through it.”
Mama sat back. “That’s a problem of the spirit.”
“So medicine women are supposed to fix that.”
“I’m a trained doctor,” Mama said, straightening up. “I fix the body. The spirit can tell me what’s wrong with the body sometimes. But what you are describing—you can talk to Reverend Harland at the church about the spirit.”
“Seems you should be able to do it all.”
He expects that she, a doctor, can fix anything, but he’s also highlights her gender—and it seems that the demands he places on her partially reflect his need for nurturing in the wake of losing the woman he was in love with. More than a century before writers and academics like Joyce Gabriel, Bettye Baldwin, and Helen Gurley Brown articulated some version of “having it all” in books and magazines geared to middle-class white women, Black women were expected to do it all: nurse, work, love, uplift, protect. When they inevitably failed to do everything perfectly, as anyone would under such pressure, they were called scolds, emasculating figures, cold, sliders down the Bell Curve.
The women in this book—be they traveling singers, or the wives of academics, or members of the Ladies’ Intelligence Society, an all-Black women’s group hosted by mavens of Libertie’s community—are tasked with doing some of everything. Some handle this expectation better than others. Some men ask their wives to work for the both of them, and others, like Libertie’s eventual husband, mislead them. Greenidge expresses the differences in gendered expectation matter-of-factly. While most of the characters given attention in the novel are attempting to decipher themselves, some, like an abusive clergyman, are seemingly disinterested in self-awareness. Because of his authority in the community where he works, and the fact that he’s a man, the pastor is given the benefit of the doubt to take advantage of women he’s supposed to advise and employ.
Most of the novel takes place in Weeksville, and detours in Ohio, where Libertie attends Cunningham College, an all-Black university, and Haiti, where she tests her freedom further. In Weeksville, the indeterminate nature of the community best mirrors Libertie’s coming of age, and, consequently, it’s the place where she seems safest and also most constrained. In college, she’s slightly more empowered but her limitations are just more subtly codified, as in the fact that university elders need to be convinced that she has the aptitude to take medical classes with men. She sings with two talented, closely-knit classmates, Louisa and Experience, and eventually becomes their friend and manager. (Like the protagonist of Gayl Jones’s The Healing, who is a manager of a rock star, Libertie comes to better understand love, and liberation, through her proximity to Black women who perform for a living.) She realizes that she wants to go on the road and work as an impresario more than she wants to remain in school. Crucially, Louisa and Experience’s preference to sing love songs over spirituals becomes a point of contention between them and the college. This dynamic is reflected again in Libertie’s marriage to young doctor Emmanuel Chase, who she meets when he’s interning at her mother’s practice in Brooklyn. Emmanuel, the son of an American bishop who settles in Haiti, implores her to move to the island with him so that they can continue the country’s revolution, to be “wholly in charge of our own destiny.”
Libertie finds that ultimately she must choose between love and doing so-called “uplifting” work, even though her husband does not clarify before they leave that the choice is, in his mind, an either-or proposition. Libertie’s experience in colonial Haiti is circumscribed, too, despite the revolutionary optimism of the men who may have some good intentions, but who stand to profit from the brandishing of both the bible and the gun, the colonists’ preferred weapons. Here, Greenidge’s fusion of romance, exploitation, colonization, and the way that mental illness is deployed against women is redolent of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s masterful novel Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Triptych, which was first published in 1968 and rediscovered decades later. Emmanuel tells Libertie a story about “la sirén,” a Haitian deity who sings, and whose “home is at the back of the mirror. In the other world.” He compares his lover to Erzulie, a related figure, the Goddess of Love. Is Libertie’s song the hypnotizing siren song, or the romantic ditty, or the spiritual? What does she see when she looks in the mirror? It seems as if the answer lies in something Libertie said when she was in college, in a reply to an administrator who asks her why she’s so distracted. “I am unsure. If you would give me more time,” she says. Then, although it’s part of her excuse, it feels true when she remarks that her confusion might lie in “being so far from home.” Still, she can’t quite name what’s led her off the prescribed pathway.
Libertie’s core preoccupations are freedom and language and the places where they intersect. The book is best when it presents metaphors that feel insistent, yet subtle. In his poem “Homage to the Empress of the Blues,” Robert Hayden listed “the riot-squad of statistics” among many factors that prompted Bessie Smith to sing for her often beleaguered audiences; Kaitlyn Greenidge might use a different metaphor to describe a social force felt and yet not entirely articulable in common lingo. She presents her readers with the taxonomy of Dr. Sampson’s herb garden, which uses arguably arbitrary language to describe free-growing life. Greenidge’s interest in how language can be an animating or catalyzing force shows up throughout her fiction, from a fabric panel Libertie foisted in the women’s dining room of her college, which delineates the roles and responsibilities of Black women and men, to a bit of slang that shows up in “Axe Wound,” a 2014 work of flash fiction that stages a young boy’s awakening to sex and macho hubris. Libertie traverses countries trying to find herself and discovers some of her orientation to freedom lies in language, and the act of writing itself. It’s crucial that Libertie’s physical and spiritual journey occurs alongside a practice of writing a diary and corresponding with her mother. As Morrison wrote in an essay called “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” “Writing is, after all, an act of language, its practice. But first of all it is an effort of the will to discover.”
In one Libertie scene, Greenidge describes a Black newspaper’s language primer, which is meant to educate its readership. In it, the following words appear: free, life, live, took, love, loves, man, now, will, thank, God, work, hard, house, land, made, and slaves. The words in a primer are meaningless without definitions attached, without any notion of what they might look like in practice. “We must work hard and be good even in freedom,” says one character responding to the language in the primer. “That’s what you telling me. With rules like that, don’t it make you wonder what freedom’s for?”
I read Libertie as I was recovering from the side effects of my second vaccination shot. I ruminated on the fact that I was in that horizontal state at all was partly due to the legacy of people like Susan Smith McKinney Steward, Dr. Sampson’s inspiration: I got access to the vaccine through the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, a group of Philadelphia-based physicians founded by another Black woman, Dr. Ala Stanford. The connection between the iconic life depicted in this novel and my very embodied predicament stretched out in front of me like a timeline of Black History Facts, felt weighted like my comforter. Sweating and feverish, in and out of consciousness and video conferences, the book in the back of my mind, the novel’s plot overlaid my reality. I felt as if I’d passed through a wormhole that explained my free Black self on damp white sheets, 150 years after the book’s events. This on-the-nose confluence of fact, fiction, lived experience, and historical reimagination caused me, in my bewildered state, to feel like I was dallying inside a “The More You Know” PSA, or the reenactment portion of an educational program called “Living Black History.”
Perhaps some of this effect is intentional. It’s hard to come away from Libertie without a deeper appreciation for history placards and the air around them, the “first Black” lives they highlight—and a thorough acknowledgment of the people who made their work possible at all, the ones who aren’t mentioned. The effect is of gazing up at an iron historical marker in the present-day and seeing, as you read, Black folks passing by in the background behind the sign, on their way to the bus stop or to work, or to lunch, or to the park, not actively noticed but coming into sharper focus. I imagine their counterparts from more than a century earlier, the men who built the buildings these markers are erected in front of, the women who did the washing and the child-minding for the notable figures valorized within those iron borders. Dr. McKinney Steward’s daughter Anna McKinney Holly was someone who is an historical footnote, her legacy stuck somewhere between unnoticed person and history-maker. And yet her story was a major influence on this novel.
To say that people like Anna McKinney Holly are forgotten would be slightly inaccurate, because they’d have to first be known widely in order to be remembered by those empowered to document their existence for posterity, and then remembered to be forgotten. But they were “never looked at,” to use Morrison’s phrase. They aren’t particularly well-known or remembered, except to researchers digging into the lives of their more famous forebears, and to their relatives. But perhaps that’s where a kind of freedom lies, out of the earshot of reporters and historians.
In an interview last fall, Greenidge said that it was actually Ellen Holly, one of the doctor’s—and Anna’s—descendants, who inspired the novel. When the author was working at the Weeksville Heritage Center, collecting oral histories of the surviving families of former residents, she interviewed Holly and learned about the legacy of her great-grandmother Dr. McKinney Steward, including Anna’s harrowing escape from Haiti. Holly herself is best known as a character actor, and gained recognition for her work on television, for which she worked steadily for three decades, beginning in the ‘60s. Most notably, from 1968 to 1985, she had a long-running role on soap opera One Life to Live. She has otherwise played the kinds of people Greenidge has brought her attention to in this book, bright Black women of all stripes: laundresses, members of ladies’ societies, wives of college presidents, women who end up passing for one reason or another, paramours embroiled in complicated romances. Many of Ellen Holly’s onscreen roles were parts for women who are not really thought of, who don’t command star-level attention in Who’s Who and Black history citations; like Libertie Sampson, they are the character actors of history. According to A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1888), an 1883 edition of The Stage first defined a character actor as “one who portrays individualities and eccentricities” as opposed to what they call the “legitimate actor,” who “endeavours to create the role as limned by the author.” Both Libertie and Holly, as expressed in her biography One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress, are community-oriented and yet fiercely individual. They want to be the authors of their own lives.
In September 1968, one month before she debuted on One Life to Live, Holly, then a young stage actor, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called “How Black Do You Have to Be?” in which she skewers the rigid determinations of critics who demand Black actors, and the plays and films they appear in, look and behave in a way that feels authentic to “black militants and white ‘liberal’ writers.” She argues that those figures have “staked out a territory called Where It’s At, Man that so narrowly limits blackness that it can fit on the head of a pin.” She explains, “The truth of the matter is that there is no one place where it’s at. There are 22 million different, highly individual Negroes in this country and, therefore, 22 million places Where It’s At, Man, and it is a cynical comment on the nature and quality of human life to assume that any single one is somehow more valid than the next.” Although she was talking about the false arbiters of Blackness, that last line could also refer to the distinctions within her family history, which include many “first” and “first-Black” citations. (According to Holly, her father was a chemical engineer who was the first chemist to use titanium pigment in commercial and industrial paints.) At a pivotal point in the op-ed Holly asks, “Does no one understand what freedom really means?” Greenidge’s novel is a kind of follow-up to that question—a brilliant and searching interrogation into what freedom really means. The book elevates the story of a woman who wants to be remarkable on her own terms, who first struggles, and then revels, in the specificity of her highly individual Black self, and a kind of validity that’s derived from her own rubric. Forgive me for being corny, but I think there’s something poignant in the fact that Anna, Libertie’s inspiration, who left New York for Haiti and came back weathered and, ultimately, with a story of her own to tell, had a granddaughter who starred in a show called One Life to Live.