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An 8th-generation storyteller recounts her ancestors’ slave days and what has grown out of them

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Bettye Kearse

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bettye Kearse was a longtime Boston pediatrician and loved her work.

But Kearse, now a Santa Fe resident, was pulled in another direction while she was in medicine. As her family’s eighth-generation griot (female African American storyteller) she began writing a book about her family as told through its oral history.

That history begins with Mandy, identified as a young girl from West Africa who endured the infamous Middle Passage in chains and enslavement in Virginia.

According to that oral history, Mandy was a slave at Montpelier, the home of James Madison Jr., the fourth president of the United States and a Founding Father.

Kearse’s enlightening book, “The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family,” has not only been a labor of love for the author for 30 years but, more deeply, her life’s purpose.

The manuscript has undergone several iterations. The first, as her mother suggested, was a compilation of the family’s stories. That drew too narrow an audience. The second iteration was a novel. A rigorous writing class Kearse was in didn’t like it.

“But it had a prologue that talked about how my mother and I had heard the stories, and (the class) liked that,” she said in a phone interview.

The stories were welded into essays. Kearse started seeing trends, themes, broad concerns that went beyond her own family. “I became very involved with the slaves as people and wondered how they could have gotten through being stolen, the auction blocks, being sold off,” she said.

Kearse’s experiences with racism and those of her ancestors are deftly and sympathetically braided throughout the pages. Most notable is Mandy, who eloquently speaks to the reader through the author’s imagination.

Kearse came to understand that her ancestors must have possessed incredible inner strength and hope.

“They could have given up, but they didn’t. It took time for me to be able to take this in. That ends up being what I want readers to get out of the book — that slaves were remarkable people and passed their qualities down to their descendants, myself included,” she said.

According to the Madison family tree in the book, Mandy and the president’s father had a slave child named Coreen; and President Madison and Coreen, his half-sister, also had a slave child together. Kearse traces her ancestry to that union of president and slave.

“My mother was very proud of descending from a president, but she never allowed herself, I believe, to realize that this happened through rape. It didn’t have to be through violence, but power and vulnerability. I felt compelled to recognize it,” Kearse said.

For generations starting with Coreen’s descendants, she said, the family’s directive was: “You’re a Madison; you come from a president.”

Kearse said her grandfather amended it to incorporate black pride: “Always remember — you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.”

Oral history, Kearse said, is one of three main paths to look at one’s ancestry; the other two are archival documents and DNA.

“All three are important. Not one alone can give you the full story,” she said. “I want people to embrace their slave ancestry, to survive and contribute to all human endeavor. And I hope it could counter the effects of racism on our young people.”

The book’s chapter “Destination Jim Crow” was submitted as a stand-alone essay and was awarded a “notable” designation in the volume “Best American Essays of 2014.”

Kearse said she wants to write a young adult version and a children’s version of “The Other Madisons.”

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