The author of “The Other Madisons,” by Bettye Kearse, is an eighth generation direct descendant of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. The president and his wife Dolley Madison did not have children of their own, but James fathered a child by Coreen, a slave and half-sister to Dolley Madison.
Kearse became the eighth generation griotte of her family. Griottes (female) and griot ( males) are the West African preservers of their ancestries. They became the storytellers of their histories, cultures and heritages, primarily an oral tradition.
Kearse heard stories from her mother and grandmother and her mother gave her a box of documents, memorabilia and photos. There was great pride in the family. The motto was “Always remember you’re a Madison. You come from African-American slaves and a president.”
In this memoir, Kearse fills in the gaps relating to the history of her ancestors as slaves. The family had glossed over the slavery issue, stating that slavery was the norm back then. Instead the family focused on how they had survived, becoming more successful with each generation. Kearse comes from a long line of educators and doctors. Standards were set very high for Kearse and her brother.
Though Kearse is proud of her slave ancestry, she has a difficult time reconciling President Madison, the writer of our Constitution, with James Madison, slave owner. Kearse gives a voice to slaves whose names were changed, those who lost their families as they were bought and sold, and those who were brutalized.
Her research takes her to Ghana, where her ancestors originated, to Portugal, a huge slave trading port, and to the American south. She speaks with empathy about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Kearse tries to imagine the lives of those who came before her and ponders on how very different her life is today.
“The Other Madisons” is a well-written memoir, a book that does her ancestors proud.