Author Bettye Kearse, her book, and Dr. Robert Bland
In Conversation: Bettye Kearse and Robert Bland
by Casey Fox
December 18, 2020  •  3 minute read
Photo of author Bettye Kearse and her recently published book, The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President's Black Family.

The John C. Hodges Society of the University of Tennessee Libraries proudly presents In Conversation: Bettye Kearse and Robert Bland, a virtual event, at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, December 8th. Kearse and Bland will discuss Kearse’s recently published book The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family.

For thousands of years, West African griots and griottes have recited the stories of their people. Without this tradition Bettye Kearse would not have known that she is a descendant of President James Madison and his slave: his half-sister, Coreen. In 1990, Bettye became the eighth-generation griotte for her family. Their credo—“Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.”—was intended to be a source of pride, but for her, it echoed with abuses of slavery, including rape and incest. Bettye embarked on a journey of discovery—of her ancestors, the nation, and herself. She learned that wherever African slaves walked, recorded history silenced their voices and buried their footsteps: beside a slave-holding fortress in Ghana; below a federal building in New York City; and under a brick walkway at James Madison’s Virginia plantation. And when Bettye tried to confirm the information her ancestors had passed down, she encountered obstacles at every turn.

Photograph of Dr. Robert Bland, professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Tennessee.

Part personal quest, part testimony, part historical correction, The Other Madisons is the saga of an extraordinary American family told by a griotte determined to tell the whole story.

Bettye Kearse is a retired pediatric physician and geneticist. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Mental Floss, The Boston Herald, River Teeth, and Black Lives Have Always Mattered, and was listed as notable in The Best American Essays. She lives in New Mexico.

Robert D. Bland is an assistant professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His upcoming book explores the legacy of Reconstruction in African American memory and politics.

This event is produced in partnership with Union Ave. Books, the UT Black Alumni Council, the UT Division of Diversity and Engagement, and the Office of Multicultural Student Life.