"This moving account asks essential questions about how American history gets told."
-- Publishers Weekly review
We paid a virtual visit to Bettye Kearse, a retired pediatrician with a Ph.D. in Biology and a B.A. in Genetics. In her new book, The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President's Black Family, Bettye traces the story of her family, the descendants of an enslaved cook named Coreen and -- according to oral tradition -- President James Madison, the architect of the Constitution of the United States.
The book is based on more than 30 years of research, and on the storytelling of eight generations of her family's griots and griottes -- traditional conservators of oral history. Bettye was appointed her family's griotte in 1990.
Smithsonian Magazine named it one of "The Ten Best History Books of 2020" and one of “Five New Nonfiction Books to Read While You’re Stuck at Home." Kirkus Reviews called it "A Roots for a new generation, rich in storytelling and steeped in history."
Publishers Weekly said, "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."
The Other Madisons is currently being developed as a film by award-winning documentary filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley. (Video clip below.) Purchase the book from the local, independent Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza: https://www.bhny.com/book/9780358505006
We spoke with Bettye at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
What is your biggest hope for America in 2021?
I hope that America will begin the process of becoming closer to the ideals stated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and in the Preamble to the Constitution by the framers of our nation's blueprint.
What's the most important thing we can learn from the pandemic?
To act out of concern for our fellow citizens.
What activity are you most looking forward to enjoying after pandemic restrictions are lifted?
What new social or technological development excites you the most?
I have a love/hate relationship with Zoom!
Is there anything on Earth that you find unexpectedly beautiful?
The snow-peaked mountains around Santa Fe, New Mexico turning pink under the setting sun are astoundingly beautiful.
Bettye speaks about the griot tradition in this clip from the film-in-progress:
An African American woman's oral family history connects her to a US president, by Krissah Thompson, November 2017
Bettye Kearse’s ‘The Other Madisons’ Connects Her Family To A Former U.S. President, by Joi-Marie McKenzie, Essence Magazine, April, 2020