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

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

1691567
Bettye Kearse

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.”

Home » Entertainment » Most Recent Entertainment News » An 8th-generation storyteller recounts her ancestors’ slave days and what has grown out of them


Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email yourstory@abqjournal.com

taboola desktop

1
Rain or shine, students fight for normalcy
ABQnews Seeker
Homecoming returns after years of pandemic ... Homecoming returns after years of pandemic impacts
2
NM to be part of 'clean freight corridor'
ABQnews Seeker
Hydrogen network could power trucks throughout ... Hydrogen network could power trucks throughout Southwest
3
Judge was a 'very generous and caring person'
ABQnews Seeker
Friends and colleagues describe Judge James ... Friends and colleagues describe Judge James A. Parker as a gentleman
4
Climate-fueled wildfires worsen dangers for struggling fish
ABQnews Seeker
A summer-long mission comes to a ... A summer-long mission comes to a quick end as cutthroat trout rescued earlier this year are released into new digs
5
NMPhil announces rock and pop series
Arts
Rock and pop music fans can ... Rock and pop music fans can hear the music of the movies, flamenco fusion and a symphonic version of Genesis when the New Mexico ...
6
New concertmaster to make NMPhil debut Sept. 25
Arts
On Sunday, Sept. 25, Cármelo de ... On Sunday, Sept. 25, Cármelo de los Santos will give his first concert with the New Mexico Philharmonic at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, playing the ...
7
Now is the time to prep for moving citrus ...
Arts
It's time to start to monitoring ... It's time to start to monitoring your trees for any pests that could be congregated or hidden on the citrus.
8
'Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium' explores the understudied iconographic ...
Arts
Opening on Sept. 30, at the ... Opening on Sept. 30, at the New Mexico State University Art Museum, 'Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium' sheds light on this understudied
9
Former reporter pulls from personal experience in 'The Power ...
Arts
Elizabeth 'Digger' Doyle is the protagonist ... Elizabeth 'Digger' Doyle is the protagonist of Rosalie Rayburn's lively, crisply-written debut novel 'The Power of Rain.'