The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family
By Bettye Kearse
Published March 24, 2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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.
The Other Madisons is a fascinating book about a family’s secret history. When Bettye Kearse’s mother hands over a box containing the family records, she tells Bettye that she is now the family’s griotte, a West African tradition that means she is now the keeper of her family’s history.
Kearse has always been told that she’s the descendant of slaves and a president. Family legend says that President James Madison fathered a child with his slave, and Kearse’s family is descended from that child, a slave named Jim who was sold by Madison’s wife Dolley. While the descent from Madison is a source of pride for some in the family, Kearse is much more interested in finding her lost slave ancestors, and so she begins a journey into the past.
This is a really powerful, moving book. Kearse moves back in time, searching for her lost ancestors. The first of her line is Mandy, a girl who was kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery. She ends up on the Madison plantation, where she is the grandmother of Madison’s son Jim. There are short interludes between chapters written in the voice of Mandy. These passages are often brutal, as they tell the story of Mandy’s capture and life as a slave. These interludes worked well. Mandy can’t be found anywhere in official history, but Kearse gives her a voice in the book.
Kearse’s research takes her into some dark places. While others in her family referred to relationships between female slaves and masters by euphemisms, Kearse isn’t afraid to call it what it was, rape. And it’s hard to trace genealogy, because slaves aren’t listed by name in plantation records; they’re just numbers (that detail is particularly chilling). She visits Ghana to see where it all began, and she finds a measure of piece visiting the slave graveyard at the Madison estate.
I recommend this book for anyone who’s interested in American history, geneaology, or learning more about slavery and its effects on families. It’s an important story about a terrible stain on U.S. history.
I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.