For more than 200 years, Bettye Kearse’s family credo “Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president” has served as a source of pride and inspiration. But Kearse doesn’t know why the credo should make her proud. For her, it resounds with the abuses of slavery.
In 1990, when her mother turns over to her the old box of family memorabilia, Kearse becomes her family’s eighth-generation griotte, the oral historian. To confront the discomforting parts of her family’s story, she begins a journey of discovery—of her ancestors, her country, and herself. She travels to Lagos, Portugal, where the transatlantic slave trade began; to Ghana, West Africa, where her family’s first African ancestor in America, and their first griotte, was born; to Baltimore, Maryland, where a replica of a slave ship sits in a museum; to James Madison’s plantation where three generations of her family lived in bondage; and to Bastrop County, Texas, where her enslaved family resided when Emancipation came.
Kearse learns that wherever African slaves once walked, history had tried to bury their footsteps and silence their voices. She also learns that slaves possessed hope and inner strength, by which they survived, and talents, by which they contributed mightily to America. Then they passed down those same qualities to their descendants, including those alive today. Kearse decides to give voice to the stolen Africans and to encourage African Americans to embrace their slave ancestry so that they, too, to contribute mightily to America.
Bettye Kearse, a descendant of a slave and President James Madison, is a writer and retired pediatrician living in Santa Fe, NM. Her commentary “Our Family Tree Searches for Branches” appeared in the Boston Herald. “Destination Jim Crow,” a personal narrative published in the fall 2013 issue of River Teeth, was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2014 and nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. In March 2020, TIME Magazine published her article "I Feared My Enslaved Ancestors Had Been Dishonored in Death." Her essays "Slavery on Wall Street" and "America's Hidden Stories: The Other Madisons" appeared in May 2020 issues of Image Makers and Influencers Magazine. She is the author of the memoir, The Other Madisons: The Lost History of A President's Black Family (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. March 24, 2020). Her website is www.bettyekearse.com.
William Fauklner once famously said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." For me, the past is alive in family memorablilia and the stories told from generation to generation. It is in my values and beliefs. The past is in how I try to live my life.
The Other Madisons
History, I realized that night in T.O.’s home, is not just facts and dates. It is how people place themselves in the world. It is enslaved people who, in every moment of their quiet, invisible lives, stole pieces of themselves from their masters in order to say, “I am.” History is in names that could not or would not be written down. It is in thoughts, feelings, and memories. It is a proud elderly man living in his great-grandfather’s tavern along the back roads of rural Virginia. History is a thirty-one-year-old mulatto woman making a living for herself and her children and believing evidence of her life to be worth saving. Sarah’s bundles of yellowing letters and piles of papers with curling edges reminded me of the box now in my care. Her trunk held stories and messages, and T.O. was its spokesman. He, too, was a griot.