Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Other Madisons: An Audio Book Review

 For those of you who know me and my journey with Half-Truths, you will appreciate that when I heard of Bettye Kearse's book, The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President's Black Family, I knew I had to read it. Since I am way behind on my to-be-read books, I was fortunate to receive a review copy from Recorded Books. See the giveaway notes at the bottom to see how you can receive a copy of this rich memoir. 

I heard Bettye speak at a webinar sponsored by the Charlotte chapter of the Women's National Book Association. After I heard Bettye's compelling talk I reached out to her and we met virtually and have exchanged emails and phone calls. I am thrilled to share her book with you, as well as a few thoughts about her writing journey. Let's just stay that I'm not alone in investing over fifteen years into a project I love.


Few of us can trace our ancestry as Bettye Kearse has.  She is a eighth-generation griotte and her mother said to her from the time she was a child, "Always remember--you are a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president." 

Bettye unpacks the full implication of this family credo when her mother passes on to her a box full of ancestral documents, priceless mementoes, and photographs.  At the time, Bettye was a successful pediatrician in Boston. Her life was about to change.

Bettye (around four or five) standing with her mother .

This rich, sensory memoir begins and ends with the voice of Mandy, Bettye's enslaved ancestor stolen from Ghana. Kidnapped from her home, Mandy is crammed into a slave ship. The reader feels the splinters in her hands in the hold of the ship, smells the reek of urine and feces, and feels the horrific chains binding her. 

When she gets to Montpelier, James Madison's Virginia plantation, Mandy's agonies have only just begun. Sexually assaulted by James Madison senior, she gives birth to their daughter Coreen. James Madison's son, James junior, is attracted to Coreen and he takes her for himself--despite the fact that she is his half-sister. (Bettye explains these complicated relationships in this interview.)

Having grown up in the sixties, Bettye is uncomfortable with her mother's unflinching pride in being a descendent of the Madisons. President James Madison had owned and abused her ancestors! How could she be proud of that? 

Knowing that she was challenging parts of her family history that her mother hadn't, Bettye wonders what she can contribute to the family legacy. Though hesitant, Bettye determines to uncover the truths about her ancestors and becomes the first person to write the family history down. 

An 1860 slave census listing Bettye's 
and their children.

Bettye was very close to her grandfather, and the book is full of their relationship. He frequently told her mother, "Our white ancestors laid the foundation of this country, but our dark-skinned ancestors built it." Another time he commented, "Racism is just another challenge, and challenges make us strong." 

Bettye's research into her past takes her to Lagos, Portugal. What she finds rocks her to the core. The people who live in this tourist town are oblivious to the slave trade that had begun there in 1441. "There wasn't one morsel of information about slave stockades. The erasure was complete."

Bettye visits the Elmina Castle in Ghana and imagines what it was like for the enslaved men and women who were stolen, separated from their families, and kept in bondage. Her description of these atrocious events is complete. 150-300 women stood pressed together in "rooms of deep sorrow." They were marched through a "gate of no return" to a slave ship. "The ocean wiped away their footprints."

When Bettye comes back to the states, she visits the National Black Wax Museum in Baltimore. On board a replica of a slave ship, Bettye puts herself into Mandy's horrific experiences of possibly being raped, sick, and close to death. She wonders if she would have made it to the New World. 

There is much more to this book: Bettye's conversations with her mother over the nature of the sexual relationships between owners and slaves (her mother called it "visiting"),  Bettye's first encounter with Jim Crow when she was five-years-old, the racism she still experiences, Bettye's pride for her family and other enslaved Blacks, how she feels holding the picture of her great-great-great grandmother--the first ancestor she could see. 

This is an important book and one you won't quickly forget. 


In one of our conversations, Bettye told me that the hardest part of writing this memoir was what to do with the "rich material" she had received from her mother. Initially, Bettye wrote the book the way her mother wanted, as a record of their family stories. Then, she realized that her story wasn't unique to her and a mentor recommended that she write it as fiction; but that came out "flat." Her mentor then suggested Bettye write a memoir. Inserting her own feelings was difficult, but that process breathed life into the narrative. "It was very rewarding to discover my purpose by writing this as a memoir and realizing that I had a message for others."


The narrator, Karen Chilton, has a beautiful reading voice and immersed me in the memoir. Sometimes I forgot that it wasn't Bettye speaking. Here is an audio snippet to show you how well Chilton reads the book:

Here is a video sequence narrated by Bettye and other historians.


Join Bettye for a virtual screening of the Eduardo Montes-Bradley documentary, The Other Madisons. There are several opportunities to view the film over the next few weeks.


Leave me a comment by March 20 at 6 PM if you would like to enter this giveaway. PLEASE leave me your email address if you are new to my blog. 


This book is a great book club selection. Download the discussion guide here.


JoyceHostetter said...

Such a powerful story! Carol, you did a great job introducing this book and after hearing the audio snippet and the video clip I do want to win it! Thanks so much to Bettye for sharing her story with us.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Joyce. Your name starts the list. I hope you get to read or listen to this book.

Linda Phillips said...

This is an amazing story and a fascinating piece of American history. Thanks for sharing it with us, and giving us the opportunity to win it, Carol.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, LInda. You'd love this book!

Sandra Warren said...

Please put my name in to WIN this audio book. What a compelling story beautifully introduced by you, dear friend. I can't wait to read or listen to it.

Carol Baldwin said...

You're in, Sandra. Try to tune into one of the screenings this week. I plan to go tonight.

Danielle H. said...

This is a piece of history I've never known about. I am realizing more and more that the history I learned was not about the real people that made our country what it is today. Thank you for sharing this. I know my husband and his best friend would also enjoy this.

Carol Baldwin said...

Yes, there’s a lot to learn, Danielle!

Theresa Milstein said...

This sounds like a complicated and important book. It's been well-known to me that many of our founders raped slaves--just another layer of how our country tries to wrestle with the idea of equality while it continued so many institutions that upheld slavery. What I didn't know was that any slave family had records to show this direct connection. I really want to read this.

Carol Baldwin said...

You’ll be glad you read it, Theresa. I entered your name.

Connie Porter Saunders said...

I think that you know how much I love your reviews and giveaways of children's books but this is a book that I would love to read for myself. I love history and I believe we need to know it all, as painful as some of it may be. Thanks Carol.

Carol Baldwin said...

Connie, It is an amazing book. I hope you get a chance to watch her movie too. (Check out the link in the blog.) It is beautiful. Your name is in the hat.

Unknown said...

I will recommend this book to my book club. I can't wait to read it even if my group didn't vote for it!
Thanks for the recommendation.
Hewi Mason

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad you found my review, Hewi. Obviously I think this is a great book.

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