Cover image for The other Madisons : the lost history of a president's Black family
The other Madisons : the lost history of a president's Black family
Physical Description:
x, 253 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm

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"A Roots for a new generation, rich in storytelling and steeped in history."
-- Kirkus Reviews , Starred Review

"A compelling saga that gives a voice to those that history tried to erase...Poignant and eye-opening, this is a must-read."
-- Booklist

In The Other Madisons , Bettye Kearse--a descendant of an enslaved cook and, according to oral tradition, President James Madison--shares her family story and explores the issues of legacy, race, and the powerful consequences of telling the whole truth.

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.

Author Notes

BETTYE KEARSE is a retired pediatrician and geneticist. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Herald , River Teeth , and Black Lives Have Always Mattered , and was listed as notable in The Best American Essays 2014 . She lives in New Mexico.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Essayist and retired pediatrician Kearse traces her family's history from the antebellum South to present-day California and Boston and investigates long-standing claims that she and her relatives are descended from U.S. president James Madison in this evocative and probing debut. According to family legend, Kearse is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of the founding father and an enslaved woman named Coreen. Writing in the African tradition of the griot (oral historians and storytellers who serve "as human links between past and present"), Kearse begins her inquiry with a box of heirlooms including "a smudged copy of an 1860 slave census" listing her great-great grandparents and their 10 children. She pays a visit to Madison's Montpelier estate in Virginia, where archaeologists are in the midst of excavating the kitchen where Coreen once cooked; travels to slave trading centers in Lagos, Portugal, and Ghana; imagines the wrenching ordeals of her first ancestor to be brought from West Africa to America; and relates her mother's experiences growing up in Jim Crow--era Texas. Though Kearse's attempts to establish a genetic link to the president--who had no "acknowledged offspring"--are met with "roadblocks," she succeeds in portraying her family's tenacious rise in social standing across eight generations. This moving account asks essential questions about how American history gets told. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, Inkwell Management (Mar.)

Kirkus Review

An African American pediatrician--turned--historical detective investigates her family's history--and, by extension, that of America. "Always remember--you're a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president." So her mother told Kearse, who opens her account with invocations of the West African griot tradition of storytelling and oral history. That tradition found a place in slavery-era America because most slave owners did not allow enslaved people to learn to read and write. James Madison was different: He allowed his mixed-race son, Jim, to linger within hearing of education lessons. Given well-documented events at nearby Monticello, that Madison had such a son is a surprise only because he had no children with his wife, Dolley, which led many scholars to assume that he "was impotent, infertile, or both." Evidently not. Enriching that history not just with stories, but with more tangible historical evidence, Kearse visits the plantation, speaking with archaeologists, historians, and the descendants of slaves, reading widely, discovering the long-unknown burial sites of ancestors. She also traveled to Africa and Portugal--for, as her grandfather had told her mother, "our history goes well beyond America's boundaries." That Jim was educated did not spare him from being sold, always aware that he was the son of a president. So, too, with the descendants, enslaved and then free, who carried the Madison story to new homes, to be incorporated into the narrative of Madison's life, as Sally Hemings is in Thomas Jefferson's. On that note, Kearse writes searchingly of Madison's language in crafting the Constitution, in which the words "slave" and "slavery" did not appear but that spoke of "other persons"--acknowledged as humans, that is, but still left out. "I understood that this omission," writes the author, "was why oral history was essential to African Americans having knowledge of how crucial we have always been to what this nation is." A Roots for a new generation, rich in storytelling and steeped in history. (b/w illustrations) Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

In the grand tradition of oral history, West African griots and griottes used the power of storytelling to pass down family tales from generation to generation. When Kearse's mother delivered a box of carefully curated familial artifacts, she became her family's newest griotte. Kearse set out not only to be the first griotte to commemorate her family's story in written word but to also find solid evidence to support her family's motto, "Always remember--you're a Madison. You came from African slaves and a president." According to lore, their lineage could be traced back to a slave named Coreen and President James Madison. Kearse's journey to set the record straight was riddled with obstacles and took her around the world, from Lagos to Virginia to Ghana and New York. The result is a compelling saga that gives a voice to those that history tried to erase. Kearse deftly alternates between chapters detailing her experiences and accounts told from the perspective of their family matriarch, a West African slave called Mandy. Poignant and eye-opening, this is a must-read.

Library Journal Review

As Kearse was growing up, her mother told her many times, "You're a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president." Historians have always presumed that President James Madison was infertile and had no children, but Kearse has done a remarkable job of revealing another side of this story. Kearse became the next family griot, one of the storytellers that had passed on this story through the generations, starting with Mandy, an enslaved woman. According to the family legend of the Black Madisons, Mandy fathered a daughter, Coreen, with James Madison, Sr., and President Madison fathered a son, Jim, with Coreen. Kearse has spent decades researching Madison's family history and her own genealogy to prove this connection, uncovering remarkable stories of enslaved and free African Americans in Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas. Since the one direct male descendant of James Madison's brother will not do a DNA test, Kearse acknowledges that this story cannot be proved definitively, but that does not change her sense of family identity. VERDICT A moving, beautifully told story that adds to our understanding of Madison along with African American genealogy and oral history.--Kate Stewart, Arizona Historical Soc., Tuscon

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
Mandyp. 5
1 The New Griottep. 11
2 The BOXp. 27
Mandyp. 35
3 Family Storiesp. 37
4 Footstepsp. 51
5 Living Historyp. 63
6 Destination Jim Crowp. 73
7 The Dentistp. 93
Mandyp. 103
8 Beadsp. 107
9 The Castlep. 117
10 The Museump. 125
11 "Visiting"p. 133
Mandyp. 153
12 Sanctuariesp. 155
Mandyp. 163
13 In Search of the President's Sonp. 165
14 Elizabethp. 173
15 Free!p. 183
16 Grampsp. 199
17 New York Memorialp. 209
18 The Plantation's Talep. 213
Mandyp. 227
19 History, Heritage, Memoryp. 231
Mandyp. 243
Acknowledgmentsp. 245
Image Creditsp. 249
Resourcesp. 251