Book Talk: The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family
For thousands of years, West African griots (men) and griottes (women) have recited the stories of their people. Without this tradition Bettye Kearse would not have known that she is a descendant of President James Madison and his slave, and half-sister, Coreen. In 1990, Bettye became the eighth-generation griotte for her family. Their credo—“Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president”—was intended to be a source of pride, but for her, it echoed with abuses of slavery, including rape and incest.
Confronting those abuses, Bettye embarked on a journey of discovery—of her ancestors, the nation, and herself. She learned that wherever African slaves walked, recorded history silenced their voices and buried their footsteps: beside a slave-holding fortress in Ghana; below a federal building in New York City; and under a brick walkway at James Madison’s Virginia plantation. When Bettye tried to confirm the information her ancestors had passed down, she encountered obstacles at every turn.
Part personal quest, part testimony, part historical correction, The Other Madisons is the saga of an extraordinary American family told by a griotte in search of the whole story.
Bettye Kearse is a retired pediatrician and geneticist. Her commentary “Our Family Tree Searches for Branches” appeared in the Boston Herald. “Destination Jim Crow” was published in River Teeth, listed as notable in The Best American Essays 2014, and nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. “Mammy Warriors” is included in the anthology Black Lives Have Always Mattered. Her research for The Other Madisons was recently covered in the Washington Post. She lives in New Mexico.