Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $28
James Madison was the fourth president of the United States and a founding father who drafted the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He and his wife, Dolley Madison, lived on a plantation in Virginia, where they owned slaves. In The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family, author Bettye Kearse writes that although Madison never had any children with Dolley, he had a son with an enslaved woman named Coreen.
Coreen, Kearse writes, was her great-great-great-great grandmother.
“Always remember — you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president,” Kearse’s mother often told her when she was growing up in Oakland, California, in the 1950s. When she pressed for details about the nature of her ancestors’ relationship, her mother referred to Madison “visiting” Coreen. It took Kearse decades to utter aloud what her mother never would — that Madison raped Coreen. With The Other Madisons, Kearse adds this unvarnished truth to her family’s official history, as well as America’s.
Madison had no acknowledged heirs. And despite the best efforts of Kearse and some of her relatives, they have been unable to locate a blood relative of the former president who is willing to compare their DNA to the other Madison family’s bloodline. But Kearse’s research is thorough, and the oral history of her ancestors admirably unbroken over the centuries. What is remarkable about the oral history’s continuity is that it includes so many stories of enslaved families being ripped apart, as children and spouses were sold to other plantation owners and shipped away, never to be seen again.
For a book that discusses the atrocities of owning people and the intergenerational trauma it causes, The Other Madisons is surprisingly charming and easy to read. Kearse, a retired physician who lives in Santa Fe, has a warm, teacher-y way of imparting information, even as she writes about man’s inhumanity to man. Perhaps these qualities are part of her role as her family’s designated griotte, or storyteller, a tradition that comes from West Africa. Kearse’s family traces its griots back eight generations, to Coreen’s mother, Mandy, who was stolen from her homeland by slave traders in the mid-18th century. Kearse’s mother was her generation’s griotte, and her grandfather was the griot of his day. Griots pass down stories, safeguard family heirlooms and important papers, and keep the memories of their ancestors alive.
Kearse began looking into her roots in the early 1990s, soon after her mother told her that she was the new griotte. She takes readers with her as she visits Montpelier, James Madison’s plantation in Orange County, Virginia, and explores other historic sites, museums, archives, and cemeteries. She is overcome with emotion as she stands before the archeological remains of the cooking hearth in the Montpelier kitchen, knowing that Mandy and Coreen once stood there, too. She also reveals bits and pieces from her past, such as how she grew up in privilege and came out to society at a debutante ball in 1960.
Though she respects that her mother needed to couch the reality of sexual violence in genteel terms, Kearse hit young adulthood in the midst of the civil rights era. Now, in the era of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, she has chosen to grapple with the past using a modern sensibility, even as her prose retains a proper, formal quality of which her mother would likely approve.
Interspersed throughout the book are harrowing (but not unduly graphic or salacious) passages that imagine Mandy’s forced voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in the hold of a slave ship. Kearse doesn’t spare the reader Mandy’s indignities. She uses her narrative to drive home the terrible conditions of the ships, the frequency of sexual assault during the trip, and the pervasive fear that must have come with being snatched from one’s home and shipped to a foreign land like so much cargo.
I stumbled down a wood plank, almost fell into the dying ocean, Kearse writes in Mandy’s voice. White men prodded, beat, whipped us away from the shore, crowded us into pens. Dumped buckets of water on us. Water poured over my head, into my nose, my mouth. I gasped for air, squatted down in our filth. They threw food at us. I cupped my hands, shoved it into my mouth. I gagged.
For some, such stories would be too sad to conjure or repeat, but for Kearse, they seem to serve as examples of resilience. “Each time I heard her story, I loved Mandy more,” Kearse writes. “My heart broke for her. She came to America alone. She didn’t know anybody, and everything was different. Mandy had no idea what was going to happen next or what she was supposed to do, and she couldn’t ask; nobody spoke her language. But she learned how to pick cotton and tobacco and to speak English.”
Bettye Kearse conducts a live-streamed reading of The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 30, hosted by Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse. Check collectedworksbookstore.com for details.