Égalité, Fraternité, And 'Libertie' : Code Switch This month on Code Switch, we're talking about books — new and old — that have deepened our understandings of what it means to be free. First up, a conversation with author Kaitlyn Greenidge about her new novel, Libertie, which tells the story of a young woman pushing back against her mother's expectations of what her life should look like.

Égalité, Fraternité, And 'Libertie'

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Next week on CODE SWITCH...

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MERAJI: If you're the lightest shade of brown...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Because of my skin tone, I will never be in danger the way, like, actual people of color might be.

MERAJI: ...Is it cool to call yourself a person of color?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. I absolutely want to own my space as a woman of color, as a feminist woman of color. I'll go even further, right?

MERAJI: I talk with Maria Hinojosa, author of "Once I Was You: A Memoir Of Love And Hate In A Torn America," and Maria Garcia, the host of the "Anything For Selena" podcast about Latinidad and light skin privilege. That's next week. Now on to the show.

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MERAJI: Just in case you're wondering, you're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I was wondering. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: So it's summertime. It's hot. Maybe you have AC, and you just want to sit inside and read, read, read, or you're just an all-seasons reader. Summertime reading is not your thing. It's, like, all year round. It doesn't matter. For the next few weeks, it's all books everything here on CODE SWITCH, and the books we're talking about this month are going to be about freedom, all kinds of freedom - personal freedom, freedom writ large, Freedom with a capital F. So whether you're chilling in the AC or by a large body of water or under a tree groaning under the weight of thousands of evil cicadas, we are talking about some books with which you might spend these midsummer days.

DEMBY: Which brings us to the author of a book that I read that I really dug this year, Shereen. Her name is Kaitlyn Greenidge.

MERAJI: Yes. You've been talking about it for a minute.

DEMBY: I have been. I have been.

MERAJI: So I'm excited about this. Yeah.

DEMBY: I want to kind of set this book up a little bit. So...

MERAJI: OK.

DEMBY: The inspiration comes from this time when Kaitlyn was working at this museum in Brooklyn that was dedicated to a settlement of free Black folks who lived there in Brooklyn before emancipation. And so the museum was doing this big oral history project, and Kaitlyn heard this story that just stuck with her, the story of a woman named Susan McKinney Steward.

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KAITLYN GREENIDGE: She was the first Black female doctor in New York State, and she ended up going on to found Brooklyn Women and Children's Homeopathic Hospital, which had the distinction of being an integrated hospital in Brooklyn in the 1880s.

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MERAJI: All right, Gene. I'm going to help you tell this story. Susan McKinney Steward - she was well-regarded, well-connected. She was the first Black woman to become a doctor in the state of New York and a legit boldface name among Black elites, and Susan wanted her daughter, Anna, to marry accordingly. So Susan arranged it so that her daughter would marry another fancy Black aristocrat.

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DEMBY: So this guy that she was supposed to marry was the son of the episcopal archbishop of Haiti, and Anna was supposed to marry this dude and move to Haiti afterwards. And they would live this fancy life on a fancy estate in this free Black nation across the sea and live happily ever after.

MERAJI: I love it. It sounds like a romance of my dreams.

DEMBY: Shereen - sad trombone sound. You know it ain't work out like that.

MERAJI: Womp, womp (ph).

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DEMBY: So Anna meets this cat, and she cannot stand him. She hates him with all of her heart.

MERAJI: No.

DEMBY: And so obviously, she doesn't want to marry this dude.

GREENIDGE: And her mother sort of forced her to because she didn't want to look bad in sort of, like, this burgeoning Black high society.

DEMBY: But Anna, of course, loses that fight 'cause that's how these things go, and she ends up in Haiti, miserable and married to this rich dude that she cannot tolerate.

GREENIDGE: And then she spent her marriage sort of writing all these letters back to her mother saying, this marriage is falling apart. This man isn't who he presented himself to be. He's sort of, like, the black sheep of the family. He's the one person in the family who kind of can't get it together and be this - live this life of Black excellence in Haiti. He's just kind of, like, hanging around. And he's being abusive, and I need to get out of this.

DEMBY: So Anna has two children with this dude, who we've established is trash. And both times, her mother, the doctor from Brooklyn, comes down by ship to Haiti to help deliver these children.

GREENIDGE: And so when her mother was there, she, of course, was in person and able to see really how the - how abusive the marriage was. And so after that happened, she returned to the U.S. and decided, like, I have to figure out how to get my daughter out. And the in-laws wouldn't let her leave.

MERAJI: So - and again, this is a real-life story. So Susan and her daughter, Anna - they plan a secret escape from this gilded prison in Haiti, but first, they need to get her to the U.S. embassy.

GREENIDGE: And the plan that they came up with was that she would pretend that she was going to visit a friend. She would take her two children with her - a day visit. She pinned her children's diapers to the underside of her skirt, and she got to the embassy. And the embassy got her onto a boat leaving for the U.S.

DEMBY: But the bougie bishop's son and his family found out, and they scrambled to try to stop Anna from leaving and bringing shame to their bougie-ass name.

GREENIDGE: According to family legend, as the boat was pulling away, she could see her in-laws' carriage sort of, like, coming to the boat, trying to get her off, knowing that she was leaving. And that was how she made her escape and got here, basically, with just her children and their diapers.

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MERAJI: Oh, but the bougie bishop's family - they didn't give up. They kept writing to her, pleading, trying to guilt her into returning to Haiti.

GREENIDGE: For the rest of her life, Anna would receive letters from her in-laws in Haiti saying, like, not only have you left this family behind, but you are - you've ruined the Black race. Like, you're...

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

GREENIDGE: ...Actively ruining Blackness and Black people, and you're a part of the problem. Like, you are as bad as white supremacy, essentially.

DEMBY: OK. So we're back in the 21st century, and Kaitlyn is listening to the story being told in the museum where she's working. And it's being recounted very dramatically because - quick aside, Shereen - the woman who's telling the story is named Ellen Holly, and she's a soap opera actress who was a star on "One Life To Live." And she's a descendent of Susan McKinney Steward.

MERAJI: What? So obviously, this story has so much drama, all the dramatic beats.

DEMBY: Yes. And Kaitlyn is saying it's being told, like, in this very old Black Hollywood, Lena Horne way.

MERAJI: Nice.

DEMBY: Yes. So Kaitlyn is listening to the story being recounted, and she is riveted.

GREENIDGE: I was just - I fell in love. I was like, I - if I ever get a chance to write a novel, it has to be about this (laughter) somehow, some way.

DEMBY: That novel is now out in the world. It's called "Libertie."

MERAJI: And you talked to Kaitlyn about it.

DEMBY: Yup. And you will hear our conversation after the break.

Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

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DEMBY: And we're back to talk with Kaitlyn Greenidge about her new book, "Libertie."

MERAJI: Which was published this spring to glowing reviews. It's about a young girl named Libertie. She lives in a free Black community in New York before the Civil War. Her mom, Catherine, is a doctor who tends to the Black people in their community and to some of the white ladies who have illnesses that they want to hide from, you know, the high-society folks in Manhattan. Catherine - Mama Catherine wants Libertie to follow in her footsteps and to become a doctor, too.

DEMBY: But - and this will probably hit very close to home for a lot of us - even as Libertie desperately craves her mother's approval, she wants something else for her life entirely. So early in the novel, Libertie's mother, Catherine, who is a widow, is sending Libertie off to a Black college somewhere in the Midwest, far away from Brooklyn. And neither of them really wants to be apart from the other, but they have that kind of relationship where, you know, they can't bring themselves to say that out loud to each other.

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GREENIDGE: (Reading) In the weeks leading up to my departure, she did not speak to me of it at all. Mama went about her work as if I would be there with her forever. On the morning I left, she told Lenore to take me to the ferry to Manhattan. I should stay at the hospital, she said. But as I clung to the cart, she stopped and held my hand and kissed it in that same desperate way I'd seen her do to Madame Elizabeth. You write to me, you hear? - she said, her voice strangled. You write to me everything that happens to you so I can know it.

I kept my hand in hers for as long as I could. Let me stay with you, and I wouldn't have to write anything at all, is what I wished to say. But I only said, yes, Mama. And then she threw my hand away, and the silence rose up between us again, as inevitable and heavy as an ocean's wave.

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MERAJI: Ooh.

DEMBY: So Libertie is having her own personal coming-of-age in the time just before the Civil War and the period after, which, you know - when it seemed, if just for an instant, that a whole world of opportunity was about to be available to all these newly free Black folks.

MERAJI: Yeah. Right.

DEMBY: And "Libertie," the book, is about how freedom is fragile and how it comes with these huge costs to the people who achieve it, but it's also about these fissures between a mother and her daughter that grow into a canyon. So I asked Kaitlyn why she wanted to set the novel in the time period in which she set it.

GREENIDGE: She was able to become a doctor because she registered with a homeopathic medical school, and homeopathy, in the 19th century, was considered sort of like a cutting-edge version of medicine. And because it was a newer practice, they admitted Black people and white women into schools at a much greater rate than a traditional medical school would, so a lot of the early Black doctors in the U.S. were trained in homeopathy. And there's a really interesting connection between homeopathy and abolitionism in that many of the sort of most active activists in abolitionism were also super interested in alternative medicines, and so - kind of fell down that rabbit hole.

DEMBY: And you kind of wink at that because Catherine is - she doesn't allow them to eat sugar because sugar is the product of slavery. And so you sort of nod at the idea that she is broadly, like, an abolitionist.

GREENIDGE: Yeah. And she helps a couple of people escape. You see her help a man escape from slavery at the start of the book. And she's in conversation with those activist circles, but the fictionalized character of her is not necessarily a known abolitionist. But the real Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, she is super interesting because she applied for this medical school, and she went. And she says that she was never intentionally trying to pass for white. They always knew where she lived. Her address was Weeksville, Brooklyn, which is an all-Black enclave, and that they never - they just never asked her about it. The medical school claimed that they figured out that she was Black maybe, like, I think, halfway through. She ended up getting really high marks, and they were going to not allow her to be the valedictorian. And then I think there was, like, some sort of back-and-forth where she was able to speak at graduation, but there was some question over her race. But she is always very adamant that she was not actively passing, that she was always just clearly, in her mind, Black, and if they wanted to read her as white, that was sort of, like, their mistake.

DEMBY: And Libertie, of course, in the book, she's your main character. She can't pass, right? I mean, she is much darker than her mother. And her darkness comes up all the time as a sort of thing that complicates her relative position. Right? She's a freeborn Black woman. She obviously has some privilege. She's at college at this, you know, this small Black college. And the people at the Black college are, as someone points out too, are very colorstruck.

I mean, obviously, you are a dark-skinned Black woman. But I wonder - I was curious as to why you wanted to underline these sort of ways that colorism was sort of showing up in these spaces that are presumably spaces like, you know, where everyone is of the same ilk. And in some ways, she probably enjoyed more privileges than a lot of her other schoolmates did.

GREENIDGE: Libertie, you know, that's her tension, is that in many ways she's probably one of the most privileged Black girls in America. Right? Like, she's growing up in this incredible household where she's really allowed to have an intellectual and emotional life and a certain level of freedom. And yet she's still sort of coming up against these questions.

To your original question about why, sort of, in these spaces - you know, I think a lot of times when - especially when we talk particularly about Black freedom and Black liberation, people sort of get to the point of like, well, if there were just no white people around, liberation would come immediately.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GREENIDGE: And I wanted to sort of, like, push back on that idea in a certain way of, like, even if there are no white people directly in your space, we are still, you know, in a highly patriarchal culture that, you know, doesn't look kindly upon women who disagree. And we're still in a space in which color is still prized in a certain kind of way. And so then what would it mean to be in that space and to still have questions about who is and isn't free? - that maybe the rest of the people in that space don't want to hear or to talk about.

DEMBY: So Libertie is sort of trying to figure out who she is - right? - in the world at the same time that there's a sort of larger context for Black people in which everything is changing dramatically. Right? It's the period of Reconstruction. And suddenly, there is just a whole bunch of stuff on the table for Black people that has never been on the table before.

GREENIDGE: Mmm hmm.

DEMBY: What is it about these, like, two twinned sort of freedoms - and you talk - and your book is very much about, like, all the qualifiers that come with freedoms and all the, sort of, difficulties of newfound freedom. Like, what is it about that idea that is so fascinating to you?

GREENIDGE: I think a lot about how we define freedom and how it's so dependent on who's talking about it and who's actually embodying the freedom. So like, especially in the U.S., how we define freedom is so dependent on race, gender, your class position. You know, all those things begin to decide and dictate what's actually available to you when we say freedom. And then the other thing that was, like, really a big influence when I was thinking about this while writing it is that I was reading an interview with Toni Morrison in "Black Women Writers." It's, like, a collection of interviews from the '80s.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GREENIDGE: And she talks about how, in Western culture, the definition of love is synonymous with domination. Like, we can't really separate those two things in understanding romantic love - in heterosexual relationships at least. And I would argue that's the same for freedom in the U.S. We can't really think of that subject or that understanding without the idea of using it to dominate another person, whether it's your - a spouse or a child or the land or, you know, a people (laughter).

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GREENIDGE: Most people measure freedom on what they can get away with doing to somebody who has less power than them. And so when I was writing it, I was thinking sort of, like, what would it mean to be a dark-skinned Black girl? In many ways, in most of the rooms that Libertie walks into, she's going to be lowest on the power totem pole.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GREENIDGE: But she still has some privileges. You know, she's freeborn. She's the daughter of a doctor. She's part of this burgeoning Black elite, and she has an education. So what would freedom look like for that person if they're a - sort of reject those ideas of domination, if they reject that whole dialogue and try and make it for themselves? - and how difficult that is. You know, that can be a very lonely road.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GREENIDGE: But at least for Libertie, she's sort of picking up people along the way who can sort of help her figure that out.

DEMBY: This book is about, like, a lot of things. But one of the big sort of themes here is motherhood, specifically these little separations that happen, you know, over the years between mothers and daughters that eventually become these huge chasms. And I'm wondering how you were thinking about that as you were getting ready to have a daughter of your own.

GREENIDGE: Sure. So I started - I handed in the first draft of this book the day I found out that I was pregnant, and I handed in the second draft and for - like, a few hours later, I was being admitted into the hospital to have my daughter.

DEMBY: Oh, my gosh (laughter).

GREENIDGE: And then I was doing edits when the pandemic started last - my final round of edits when the pandemic started last year around this time. And she was about 6 months old.

Mother-daughter relationships are really important to me. That's probably, like, the most important relationship, looking back now in my life, is the one between my mother and myself and her mother and herself and sort of, like, going down the line.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

GREENIDGE: And I think what's so fascinating about that relationship is that it is one of, sort of, forced intimacy, but it can also be one where you can have this forced intimacy with another person and not really know them. You only know them in the role of mother or in the role of daughter. And, you know, all of us sort of have chances or choices in our - at certain points in our lives to attempt to get to know the people who raised us better or try to at least understand them better and vice versa, getting to know your child or the person who you are raising better. And sometimes, we take those chances and choices, and sometimes, we don't because it's too hard, or we don't want to, or we would prefer to think of our parent in a certain kind of way. And so that kind of tension is really interesting to me as a fiction writer and one that I really wanted to explore.

GREENIDGE: This book takes place over, like, a very particular span of time, and so it sort of begins in the period before the Civil War. So you know, you have some people who are freeborn Black people. You have some people who have escaped into freedom. But most of it takes place in this world in which it just seemed like there was a lot of, like, scary new possibility for Black people, right? And obviously, we know how that turns out. Like, there's all this - like, this great violent wave of revanchism that happens not long after that in the United States. But I wonder what you think are the contemporary resonances and what you're trying to sort of, like, nod at when you set the book in that moment.

GREENIDGE: Sure. I mean, I think what you're pointing to, like, it's a moment of intense racialized violence - or, I should say, white violence and white backlash towards Black freedom and also a time of, like - absolutely astounding achievement, even more astounding than our own. Like, the people were - literally had just lived through the one of the most traumatic events in human history, which is American slavery, and literally only a few years later, they're doing stuff like starting whole towns and newspapers and hospitals and schools and just this incredible, intense overflowing of desire to create permanence, desire to create lives. And it's really astonishing to me.

You know, what I always think about is - when I worked at Weeksville, we used to reprint copies of Weeksville's newspaper, which was called Freedman's Torchlight. And the newspaper, at the front of it, it has all these articles about, you know, like, Black political activities and stuff. And it's written in, like, 19th-century newspaperese. And then the back of the newspaper is a - it's a primer for learning how to read. It's the alphabet, and it's sentences like, you know, how big is the house? Where is the house? How do you build the house? And can you imagine, like, if we said today a newspaper should be able to be read by both your most literate member of your community and also your most illiterate member who wants to learn how to read? Like, that level of care and, like, understanding and rethinking of what is - what a newspaper could even be for is - like, we're not - we are currently not operating at that level. And people were operating at that level in, you know, 1865 or 1866, you know?

So we are living in those tensions currently, and it's it's a place of whiplash. And as a high school student, teenager and early 20s person, I would read these histories of Reconstruction and be like, what would it have been like to have lived in a moment like that? And to be living in one right now is - I - is really - I still don't have an answer to it. I don't know how you - how we're supposed to be going about each day except, I think, probably just trying to keep - you know, exercise as much of that freedom as we can.

DEMBY: So what does freedom look like? I mean, in the book, that is, like, one of the - you sort of literalize it, right? Like, Libertie's - has a - her father - she sort of imagines what freedom looks like her father. It looks like a very cool place in the summer - right? - and a very - and a relatively warm place in the winter. What is freedom like to you?

GREENIDGE: I have been asking that question to myself, like, every week or so during this pandemic. And I think for me, it's - right now, because of just, like, what's going on in my life right now, it's, like, a sense of emotional safety and security, of moving forward with that sense of courageousness and, you know, without fear, you know? Like, there's like famous Nina Simone quote where she says - it's like, freedom is no fear. And I - that's, I think, where it resonates for me right now. But I think it's an ever-expanding and ever-changing definition.

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DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch, and on Instagram, we are @nprcodeswitch. You can follow Shereen at @RadioMirage and me at @GeeDee215. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org, and subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: Hey. I'm back to tell you this episode was produced by Christina Cala and Jess Kung. It was edited by Steve Drummond and Leah Donnella. Shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Kumari Devarajan, Karen Grigsby Bates, LA Johnson, Natalie Escobar, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler and Brianna Scott. Our intern is Carmen Molina Acosta. He's Gene Demby.

DEMBY: She's Shereen Marisol Meraji. Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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