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Reviewed by Jamie Michele for Readers' Favorite
The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President's Black Family is a non-fiction American history memoir that chronicles the lineage and legacy of author Bettye Kearse's ancestry, a direct descendent, and the four-times great-granddaughter of Founding Father and fourth president of the United States, James Madison. But this is not a story about James Madison. It is something so much better. The book begins with the intimate backstory of Kearse's first known African-born ancestor, a slave named Mandy, whose heart-wrenching and violent subjugation is the maternal thread that weaves the story together. As each layer of delicate fabric is slowly connected, Kearse's pieces are brought to life as her generation's family griotte. She is the keyholder of oral family history that she augments with her own extensive research. And this is her story. “Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.”
It has been way too long since I've had the great fortune to read a book that haunted me for weeks after finishing it. The Other Madisons required time to decompress in my mind, overwhelmed by the phenomenal writing of Bettye Kearse and the unpacking of thoughts around a president I thought I knew a lot about. It turns out, not so much. Kearse and her relationship with her mother, the griotte chosen to hold the sacred story before her, as well as her difficulty reconciling the regard held for her most famous family member and the fact that he owned human beings. What I loved in Kearse's account is that the focus is really on the origins of the enslaved; Mandy and her daughter Coreen, who is both James Madison's half-sister and mother to his enslaved son, Jim. From there the lines of the family tree are firmly drawn, interspersed with Kearse's fact-finding, its emotional toll, and the accounts of all those before who brought her here today. Kearse has written this glorious book and shared it with us, no longer the griotte of her family alone, but one that carries the heritage of a nation flowing through her veins and through the tip of her pen. I would give this book a whole bucket of stars if I could.