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The Other Madisons: Book summary and reviews of The Other Madisons by Bettye Kearse

The Other Madisons

The Lost History of a President's Black Family

by Bettye Kearse

The Other Madisons by Bettye Kearse X
The Other Madisons by Bettye Kearse
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Book Summary

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.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"An African American pediatrician–turned–historical detective investigates her family's history—and, by extension, that of America...A Roots for a new generation, rich in storytelling and steeped in history." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A moving, beautifully told story that adds to our understanding of Madison along with African American genealogy and oral history." - Library Journal (starred review)

"Though Kearse's attempts to establish a genetic link to the president...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." - Publishers Weekly

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

"A fascinating root-seeking odyssey. In this poignant search for a lost tie to a founding father, Kearse reckons with the equivocal link between DNA and family and illuminates the work of racial repair confronting us all." - Alondra Nelson, author of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome

"Bettye Kearse's searing eye for truth educated, awakened, and stunned me. The heroics and pain of the author's kindred—descendants of slaves and a president—illustrates a family and country built on the shoulders of slavery. An unbroken line of ancestral oral history combined with Kearse's research illuminates ten generations, from slavery to the present, in a continuing-battle against racism in which all Americans should fight. Kearse's generosity in presenting her hard-won truth is a gift I'll always remember with gratitude. I loved this page-turning book." - Randy Susan Meyers, author of Waisted and The Widow of Wall Street

"The Other Madisons is a tale that Bettye Kearse was literally born to tell...As she journeys in search of her deepest, most painful family roots, Kearse unfurls an intensely personal tale that is also a quintessentially American story. Confronting colonialism and cruelty, power and its abuse, the silencing of slaves and the fraught complexity of intertwined nations and individual lives, The Other Madisons crafts a new kind of record, one that illuminates the power of a woman taking charge of her own truth." - Paula Lee, PhD, historian and novelist

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Author Information

Bettye Kearse

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.

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