Kaitlyn Greenidge on a 19th century hairdresser
An original essay by the acclaimed novelist
I asked Kaitlyn Greenidge to do a newsletter takeover in celebration of her latest book, Libertie. A couple of years ago, I met Kaitlyn in a pie shop that no longer exists, and we talked around the historical novel she was writing. A pandemic and change later, Kaitlyn has just been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and Libertie is getting rave reviews. I was curious, knowing how much she values history, about the primary sources she found in her research.
Kaitlyn chose to write about a 19th century self-published memoir, A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life.
Sometime in the 1840s, Eliza Potter stood on the deck of a ferry running from Ohio to Toronto. Eliza was Black and born free, probably in 1820 (census records for her are scarce). She was leaving the United States not because of persecution or fear or danger. She was traveling simply because she wanted to. “The desire for roving took possession of me,” she would later write. “Being at liberty to choose my own course, I determined to travel, and to gratify my long cherished desire to see the world...so I started as soon as possible towards the setting sun.”
Potter was able to travel widely, throughout London, Paris, New York, and Midwest high society, because she was employed as a hairdresser and at a young age trained to be among “the people of ton”, as she put it. Most remarkably, she began her extensive travels after she married and had two children. As she wrote, “At Buffalo, my journey was suddenly arrested by a sort of ceremony called matrimony, which I entered into very naturally, and I became quieted down under it, just as naturally. I have seen other persons do the same thing, and so, I suppose, I need not be ashamed to own having committed a weakness which, since the beginning of time, numbered among the most respectable on earth among its victims.” I ask you, when have you read such a frank, sly, funny description of marriage from a Black woman from the past?
When I started to work on my second novel, Libertie, I knew that I would follow the protagonist from Brooklyn to Jacmel, Haiti but I wasn’t sure how I would find a voice for her to describe her travels. The novel takes place during Reconstruction and is loosely based on the life of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first Black female doctor in New York state, and her daughter, Anna. I was setting the novel in the past, and I knew the likelihood of finding primary documents of free Black women travelers, in their own voices, that did not necessarily discuss enslavement, was rare. I read Nancy Prince’s famous travelogue and thrilled to her descriptions of Russia, but with its focus on the Imperial court and Russian culture, it did not provide the details that I needed for Libertie, whose travels and journey are decidedly of the Americas.
So I was delighted to find A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life, which Potter published herself in 1860, in Cincinnati, Ohio and which was recently republished, with annotations and a fascinating introduction by Xiomara Santamria. Excerpts are also in the omnibus Penguin Book of 19th Century African American Writers , edited by Henry Louis Gates. Either version is worth reading.
Potter is light on some details--such as who trained her as a hairdresser, how her husband and children reacted to her leaving, and who her friends, outside of her clients, were during here travels--but long on gossip. She tells us about the families she worked for where the husband was cheating; the society women who had false teeth; how so many society beauties claimed the title because of good make up, great lighting and nice wigs; and how often scammers and upstarts tried to worm their way into the lives of the elite. She’s a good storyteller, full of arch asides and a well placed italicized phrase, and it’s easy to fall under the fizzy spell of the good life.
But Potter is always aware of her status as a free Black woman, even as she relays breathless gossip. And her perspective is an excellent anecdote to any nostalgia for balls and gloves and summers at Saratoga her descriptions may evoke. In perhaps the most harrowing part of the book, she relays how she helped an enslaved person escape and was nearly beaten to death by a mob for doing so--Potter used her privilege, as a free Black traveler, to aid, even as she watched the white men and women around her, so proud of their power and strength, do nothing. It’s as if all the party scenes in Gone With the Wind or The Age of Innocence were suddenly pulled to a stop and forced to actually sit with the violence of American chattle slavery.
What I love about this, besides, of course, Potter’s heroism and solidarity, is that Potter’s story belies a dichotomy that’s often set up for women writers, especially those from the past. We often demand that they either only write and speak on the hard stuff, and not the fun, or vice versa. Potter’s remarkable life meant that she experienced it all--the horrors of racial apartheid and enslavement in America; the glittering society life of pre-Civil War white America and the truly surprising nature of travel in a time when it still felt like there were parts of the world wide open to discovery.
Potter’s memoir forces us to do away with limiting ideas around tone, genre or even what is historically plausible. For me, writing a novel set in the past, it was incredibly freeing.