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Descended from Slaves and a US President: One Family’s Story

June 25, 2020
by Nina Renata Aron

Throughout her childhood in Oakland, California, Bettye Kearse was told that she was descended from President James Madison and his slave, Coreen. “Always remember,” her family told her, “you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.” In 1990, when Kearse, a pediatrician and graduate of UC Berkeley, became the family griotte—or storyteller, in the West African oral tradition—she went in search of more information about her family history.

Cover of Betty Kearse's memoir
In her memoir, Kearse’s recounts a decades-long exploration of her mixed ancestry. // Courtesy of HMH Books & Media

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Family, tells the story of Kearse’s personal, decades-long journey to learn about the lives of her enslaved and white slaveholder ancestors, and to make greater peace with the legacy of violence and the spirit of resilience that run through her family line.

California contributor Nina Renata Aron spoke to Kearse about her writing process and family history. 

It seems like this book grew over the course of a lifetime; you’ve been researching it for at least three decades. How did those many years of traveling and researching become the book I’m holding in my hands?

Bettye Kearse: I saw it as a book for most of the 30 years I worked on it. When my mother asked me to write a book, what she intended was for me to simply record the family history. I wrote that book, but a mentor told me it was a good story but that no one except my family would be interested. He recommended I fictionalize it so that the characters could speak for other people who had gone through similar experiences. I wrote that book too, but members of a writing class I was in didn’t like it. I had included a prologue about how my mother had heard the stories, and the class liked that. They suggested I write a book of narrative nonfiction. I wasn’t up for writing another book … yet, so I wrote a series of essays (that’s when it wasn’t a book). I began to see themes and patterns in the essays, and at the same time, I was growing as a person. I wanted to learn more about how my slave ancestry had helped shape who I am, so I traveled and researched. Finally, I pulled the themes, patterns, travels, research, and my growing self into a memoir.

There are harrowing and inspiring passages in your book in the imagined voice of Mandy, an enslaved ancestor and your family’s first storyteller. How did you make the decision to give Mandy a voice in this narrative? How did it feel to write as Mandy?

BK: It wasn’t really a “decision.” My caring about her and feeling close to her brought her to life. She spoke for herself; I just edited her words. Because I knew what she wanted me to know and what she expected of me, it was easy. She is the strongest person in the book, and her chapters, I feel, are the strongest. Being able to write as Mandy was a gift.

There is so much violence and brutality in the history of this country and in the stories you researched in order to write The Other Madisons. How did you take care of yourself while writing?

BK: This book is my life’s purpose, so fulfilling it was very comforting. Also, I had beautiful gardens and trees around my house, so I wrote outdoors as often as I could. Writing in the midst of God’s wondrous creations was comforting too. 

You are the eighth-generation griotte in your family. To whom did you pass the torch, if anyone?

BK: When I sense that the end of my life is near, I will pass the torch to my only child, Nicole, then she will pass it to one of two children, her son, I think, but that will be up to Nicole. She will also decide whether or not to add her own stories and lessons to the written narrative, but they will certainly become part of our oral history. 

What do you most hope readers will take away from your book? 

BK: In recounting the struggles, perseverance, and contributions of eight generations of my family, The Other Madisons illustrates that slaves possessed hope and inner strength, by which they survived, and talents, by which they contributed enormously to America. Then they passed down those same qualities to their descendants. My life’s purpose, hopefully fulfilled through this book, is to inspire those descendants, especially our children, to believe in themselves by embracing their slave ancestry and nurturing their own hopes, inner strength, and talents so they, too, can contribute enormously to America.

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