"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."
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.
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.