Novelist Finds Inspiration in Women’s History

In anticipation of an upcoming Arts & Letters Live event with author Kaitlyn Greenidge, I had the opportunity to chat with her recently about her new novel Libertie. Deemed one of the most-anticipated books of 2021 and the May pick for Roxane Gay’s Book Club, Libertie is a fictionalized account rooted in women’s history.

In the novel, Libertie Sampson, a young Black woman in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, feels confined by her mother’s stringent vision for her future. Libertie is to go to medical school and practice alongside her mother. However, the independent-minded protagonist finds herself being drawn more to the arts than science and longs for adventure.

Greenidge told me how she got the idea for the character while running the oral history program at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, which preserves one of the largest free Black communities in pre-Civil War America. There, Greenidge interviewed Ellen Holly, a TV soap actress who shared stories of her family heritage which included Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward (1847–1918), Brooklyn’s first Black woman physician, and the third Black physician in the U.S. Dr. Steward’s renown as a doctor and founder of medical clinics and her work for suffrage and civil rights were not the only thing that caught Greenidge’s attention. She learned from the oral history that Dr. Steward traveled to Haiti to rescue her daughter from a failed marriage. And thus the character of Libertie was born.

Like the historical figure on which she is based, Libertie follows her husband to Haiti. Greenidge found inspiration in Hattian art. “I loved the blending of history and current events into art, and how people use fine arts to document history,” she told me.

Renée Stout’s contemporary work is a visual idea and interpretation of self as a figure of empowerment. A mesh collar holds medicine bags while a stamp, dried flowers, and a picture of a young Black girl are placed in the glass-covered “medicine pouch” of the torso.

image: Renée Stout, Fetish #2, 1988, mixed media (plaster body cast), Dallas Museum of Art, Metropolitan Life Foundation Purchase Grant, 1989.27, ©Renée Stout, Washington, D.C

She also conducted meticulous research on a number of topics including homeopathy. In Greenidge’s novel several pivotal moments occur in Dr. Sampson’s (the fictional version of Dr. Steward) home garden, which flourishes with medicinal plants. John Gerad’s work (below) mirrors the bountiful uses of plants as medicine. Throughout the novel, Greenidge intertwines the lives of the characters and the purpose and magic of plants.

Artist unknown, Printed Page 1217 from “The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes” by John Gerard, 1633 (1st edition was 1597), woodcut with English text, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. A.E. Zonne, 1960.191

Dr. Steward’s passion for healing extended beyond the walls of the hospital into the social, intellectual and artistic health of her community as she fostered racial inclusion, women’s rights, and local art exhibits. “What’s interesting about the period of Reconstruction, is that you have Black people creating communities whole scale from scratch,” Greenidge told me, “and what was really striking to me was how revolutionary their ideas of care were.”

Greenidge described her fascination upon discovering that African American newspapers serving newly freed Black people dedicated half of their space to news and half as a literacy primer. The consideration demonstrated in this—a paper both for those who can and those who are still learning to read—struck Greenidge as genius.

“The novel is really looking at the politics of care, and how communities decide who is worthy or unworthy of care,” Greenidge explained.

Jacob Lawrence, The Visitors, 1959, tempera on gessoed panel, Dallas Museum of Art, General Acquisitions Fund, 1984.174, The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In Jacob Lawrence’s The Visitors, above, loved ones offer consolation to the bedridden. The theme of care, as seen here and in Greenidge’s novel, resonates today.

Cristina Carolina Echezarreta is the 2020-2021 McDermott intern for Adult Programs/Arts & Letters Live at the DMA.

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