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The Other Madisons - Textual Relations March 2021 Reading

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
In The Other Madisons, Bettye Kearse—a descendant of an enslaved cook and, according to oral tradition, President James Madison—shares her family story and explores the issues of legacy, race, and the powerful consequences of telling the whole truth.

For thousands of years, West African griots (men) and griottes (women) 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, and 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.

Confronting those abuses, 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. When Bettye tried to confirm the information her ancestors had passed down, she encountered obstacles at every turn.

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

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
Since this is a non-fiction book and I don't know if there are any spoilers are people okay with posting thoughts as you read or do you want to wait until the latter part of the month again?
 
Since this is a non-fiction book and I don't know if there are any spoilers are people okay with posting thoughts as you read or do you want to wait until the latter part of the month again?

I haven't started the book yet but if it's non-fiction I don't see a need to consider anything spoilers. I guess if there's a big twist or reveal that changes things significantly then it should be marked? Tricky question.

Just got my copy from the library!
 

FelixSH

(He/Him)
I don't see a reason to use spoilers in this case. It's not a story with big twists. And even if there are twists, that's just not the point of non-fiction, I think.

But I don't mind spoilers much in general, so if others disagree, feel free to ignore me here.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I'm on about page 91, and I'm finding it a fascinating, though certainly not always comfortable, read. I like how Dr. Kearse moves between multiple different eras - so far I've seen the Revolutionary War era; her mother's childhood; her own childhood; and her adult life. It's a very effective way of highlighting how the damage of racism and slavery has never gone away, just changed to suit the times. It's also really fascinating how it spotlights different ways Black folks have had of understanding how American society tries to control them and fighting back.
 
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Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I finished it!

It was a very thoughtful book; I think Dr. Kearse does a great job of sketching out the broad details of her family's story, then filling it in in different ways and highlighting the effects of shifting contexts.
The chapter where she digs into her conversations with her mother about how their ancestors were raped was eye-opening. I'd known that common understanding of consent had undergone a generational shift, but I hadn't thought of how strongly that would impact Black families' understanding of their own heritage. I was pretty shocked at how uncomfortable her mother was with the idea. Dr. Kearse seemed to be shocked too! And I think she deliberately let us share that shock, then steps onward and continues unpacking how it's part of Black Americans' updating and refining their understanding of what slavery was. I think it's intentional that she goes from there to examining how her grandfather added "African slaves" to the family motto.
 
I'm just starting it but really enjoying it so far.

Her grandfather's version was definitely the most detailed version of The People Could Fly I've heard. I really enjoyed it.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
The museum chapter was very intense. As was the conversation with her mom, over many decades, CW:warning sexual assualt
related to the rape of slaves, former slaves, and descendents of slaves
Much as Egar related above the changing understanding/view of these events through time is portrayed really well. Difficult and hard as it is. American society in general has still not been able to do this.

This has been a hard read.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
Ooof the museum. That's fucking intense.

The museum chapter was very intense. As was the conversation with her mom, over many decades,

One of the things that really landed for me from Dr. Kearse's experiences is how cavalier American & European society is about slavery. We stopped by the Naval Museum in San Diego during a work retreat a couple of years ago, and one of the exhibits - a Russian patrol submarine - was loaded with trigger warnings. Confined spaces, loud noises, etc. From the sound of things the trigger warnings on that slavery exhibit were deeply inadequate despite worse stimulus. And I think that's because there is, by and large, a societal indifference to slavery, a kind of "oh how bad was it, really" attitude, both as a way of excusing our continued compounding of the profits of atrocity, and because engaging with the full scope is traumatic. I see that as showing up in Dr. Kearse's grandpa being the one to add "African slaves" to the family motto, to her CW conversations with her mom, the horrible Middle Crossing exhibit at the museum, the paved path at the Madison mansion, and the slavery-purging renovation of Lagos' town square.
 
One of the things that really landed for me from Dr. Kearse's experiences is how cavalier American & European society is about slavery. We stopped by the Naval Museum in San Diego during a work retreat a couple of years ago, and one of the exhibits - a Russian patrol submarine - was loaded with trigger warnings. Confined spaces, loud noises, etc. From the sound of things the trigger warnings on that slavery exhibit were deeply inadequate despite worse stimulus. And I think that's because there is, by and large, a societal indifference to slavery, a kind of "oh how bad was it, really" attitude, both as a way of excusing our continued compounding of the profits of atrocity, and because engaging with the full scope is traumatic. I see that as showing up in Dr. Kearse's grandpa being the one to add "African slaves" to the family motto, to her CW conversations with her mom, the horrible Middle Crossing exhibit at the museum, the paved path at the Madison mansion, and the slavery-purging renovation of Lagos' town square.

This is interesting because I read the Middle Crossing exhibit as an exact counterpoint to Lagos. It's making it clear that slavery was horrific. It immediately brought to mind the Hiroshima museum which was utterly devastating to go through and is strongly saying how horrible nuclear weapons are. It also reminds me of the Holocaust museum in Los Angeles which is run specifically to make sure people don't forget or ignore the effects of it and is similarly upsetting but important.

It seemed feasible I was making a leap, but I found the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum website (she has the museum name on p126) and while their website is pretty bare bones I think it confirms that the tone is to make it clear how traumatic this was and that people need to face it.
 

Rascally Badger

El Capitan de la outro espacio
(He/Him)
I'm about halfway through; I'll try to compose my thoughts tomorrow after work. This is really interesting, so far.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
This is interesting because I read the Middle Crossing exhibit as an exact counterpoint to Lagos. It's making it clear that slavery was horrific. It immediately brought to mind the Hiroshima museum which was utterly devastating to go through and is strongly saying how horrible nuclear weapons are. It also reminds me of the Holocaust museum in Los Angeles which is run specifically to make sure people don't forget or ignore the effects of it and is similarly upsetting but important.

It seemed feasible I was making a leap, but I found the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum website (she has the museum name on p126) and while their website is pretty bare bones I think it confirms that the tone is to make it clear how traumatic this was and that people need to face it.

I think that's true - it sounds like a very effective exhibit! My take-away from the passage in the book was that Dr. Kearse was badly surprised by the intensity of the experience, by the directness and explicit detail of the exhibits, and that sounded like inadequate trigger warnings. Which seems to speak to the same casual attitude - but may just have been the norms of the time not having yet popularized the notion?
 
Ah got it. I haven't seen trigger warnings in many museums I've been to so I'm not sure how they're incorporated, but I wouldn't have thought to consider the lack of one to mean the museum didn't take their material seriously. Also it's possible there was one and she went in anyway because she was determined to experience it and/or didn't realize just how affected she would be.

I thought she was making the point that being so deep into her research has made it hard to be exposed to anything like this. She keeps putting herself in the place of the slave in any historical record or re-enactment. I felt like the ship experience empowered her to finally confront her mother, although I'm not 100% clear if the chapters are presented chronologically.

Edit: Rephrased and clarified as my original reply was short and confusing.
 
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Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
I finished the book this morning. My copy has discussion questions at the back of it. Is there interest in me sharing them and people answering them or using them as a jumping off point for discussion?
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
1. Bettye Kearse introduces us to her family’s credo: “Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president”. These words, as Kearse writes, guided her family for nine generations, especially in the antebellum years when her enslaved ancestors used James Madison’s name as a tool to help them find family members who had been sold and sent away. Discuss the importance of a name. Can names be used as tool of imprisonment or linking or both?

2.Discuss what it means to be a griot or griotte . How does Kearse react when she learns that she’ll be the next griotte in her family? What does she foresee as the greatest challenges?

3. What is the significance of the cotillion scene? What does in foreshadow?

4. Discuss the role of community in this memoir—both in Kearse’s own life and in the lives of her ancestors. What has community offered them?

5. Kearse writes, “Though many in our family have heard we descend from President Madison and his slaves, only the griots know the full account of our ancestors, white and black, in America”. Discuss the importance of oral history. What does it provide that written history cannot?

6. Gramps says, “Our white ancestors laid the foundation for this country, but our dark-skinned ancestors built it”. Kearse embarks on her own journey in an effort to better understand her ancestry and her family’s regard toward it. How might you imagine confronting this reality when some ancestors oppressed and tried to erase others? What are some of the struggles Kearse experiences on her journey?

7. Discuss the significance of the Mandy sections. What insight do Kearse’s imaginings of Mandy offer us? What do these sections bring to the book? Why was it important to Kearse to trace Mandy’s footsteps?

8. Kearse writes, “‘If you shake any family tree, a chain will rattle’”. Discuss what she means by this, especially within the context of Chapter 11, “Visiting.”

9. In Chapter 13, “In Search of the President’s Son,” Kearse describes her archival and scientific research. How has technology played a role in linking family histories? What are its blind spots?

10. Discuss the realizations that Kearse has after attending a workshop at the American Civil War Center. What does the inclusion of the words “other persons” in the Constitution signify?

11. Was there a particular person from Kearse’s family history who captured your attention and whom you wished you knew more about? What about their story has been lost to time? What would a fuller sense of their story offer to your understanding of history?

12. Why do you think it was important to Kearse to write this book? What message(s) did you take away?
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
5. Kearse writes, “Though many in our family have heard we descend from President Madison and his slaves, only the griots know the full account of our ancestors, white and black, in America”. Discuss the importance of oral history. What does it provide that written history cannot?

I think this is a really interesting question, since we're experiencing an oral history in written form. One of the differences that stands out to me is that oral history seems to be more accessible to those denied power or status. Dr. Kearse repeatedly emphasizes how her ancestors couldn't keep written records because they could have their property stolen from them at any time. But their oral history is resilient to that kind of violence - to some degree, at least. And it often carries emotional resonance that is sanitized out of written, official history.
 
Finished! Here are my thoughts on a few of these:

2.Discuss what it means to be a griot or griotte . How does Kearse react when she learns that she’ll be the next griotte in her family? What does she foresee as the greatest challenges? I think her fixation on the potential impending death of her mother is incredibly important, as is that her mother addresses the fear she felt back when she learned she'd get the role.

7. Discuss the significance of the Mandy sections. What insight do Kearse’s imaginings of Mandy offer us? What do these sections bring to the book? Why was it important to Kearse to trace Mandy’s footsteps? I go back and forth on these. It's mentioned multiple times that no one knows the exact village she was from and very few other records can be found, so I'm assuming these are entirely from the family's oral history? I would have liked a bit more background and to how much of the text is Kearse adding to the narrative versus what was the family story before she started her research.

I did, however, very much like the reinterpretation of the moment her daughter was born as Kearse learns more and more.

9. In Chapter 13, “In Search of the President’s Son,” Kearse describes her archival and scientific research. How has technology played a role in linking family histories? What are its blind spots? As noted, she needs someone to directly compare to. Almost all the big ancestry sites are predominately focused on white genes because that's who has submitted the most information, and you might get different results. If you have a specific Y-chromosome marker like that it's much more accurate. On another note there are African-specific (and Native-American specific) genetic sites but I don't know a ton about them so couldn't recommend one.

12. Why do you think it was important to Kearse to write this book? What message(s) did you take away?
Her story about the family Bible being lost/stolen during a move despite being so well packaged stuck with me. A book, especially a widely distributed one, has more of a chance of surviving. It's also clear she's the first griotte to be in the right time and have the right background to address the abuse inherent in their story. Her grandfather added the slaves line so there's an awareness starting there, but she is not turning a blind eye to what so many before her have.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
7. Discuss the significance of the Mandy sections. What insight do Kearse’s imaginings of Mandy offer us? What do these sections bring to the book? Why was it important to Kearse to trace Mandy’s footsteps? I go back and forth on these. It's mentioned multiple times that no one knows the exact village she was from and very few other records can be found, so I'm assuming these are entirely from the family's oral history? I would have liked a bit more background and to how much of the text is Kearse adding to the narrative versus what was the family story before she started her research.

I did, however, very much like the reinterpretation of the moment her daughter was born as Kearse learns more and more.

It took me a while to work out what was going on in the second accounting of Mandy giving birth. I kept going "wait haven't we read this account already" until I twigged that there were differences, and I didn't connect those back to Kearse's own learning until your explanation here.

I felt like the Mandy sections were a bit out of place, particularly once Kearse "admitted" that her family, of course, knew very little about Mandy. To me, they came across as more "fantasy" than the more conventionally historic retellings up through her great-grandparents, and my first thought was that it didn't belong here. But I sort of feel like that was the point? Like you say, many of the elements there are likely from the family's oral history, presented similarly to how they would be in a verbal retelling. And just because something's told in a historical style doesn't make it more trustworthy or more true. In fact, as Kearse repeatedly suggests, often what we accept as "history" is just as much fantasy as her "imaginings" of Mandy. Her "imaginings" are, if anything, more rooted in the truths of the period than a lot of "conventional" history of slavery, and communicate those truths more directly to the reader or listener.

9. In Chapter 13, “In Search of the President’s Son,” Kearse describes her archival and scientific research. How has technology played a role in linking family histories? What are its blind spots? As noted, she needs someone to directly compare to. Almost all the big ancestry sites are predominately focused on white genes because that's who has submitted the most information, and you might get different results. If you have a specific Y-chromosome marker like that it's much more accurate. On another note there are African-specific (and Native-American specific) genetic sites but I don't know a ton about them so couldn't recommend one.

I've had some friends try to track down their ancestry using the big ancestry sites, only to come to the conclusion that first, their ancestors were not nearly as British as they subsequently tried to pass themselves off as, and secondly, that whatever their ancestry was made the genomic analysis totally bogus. Samples from near relatives (children of their mother's sisters and their own siblings) would hopscotch around Europe in ways that were physically impossible for people with the same maternal lineage.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
I don't think I realized that the Mandy vignette were being re-written as she learned more about her family's past and dug deeper into the history of Slavery in the USA. When I did I saw it as how storytellers update their stories as they learn more not only about the subject matter but their craft. I saw it as her growth not only as an expert in this field but as a griotte.
 
Hmm, I certainly could be wrong, but that's how I interpreted the retellings of the same scene. I went back to the book to see if that did make sense or if I'd just developed it in my head. It's really worth re-reading these three pages, I pulled the same sentence from all three here.

p153- the first telling. Comes right after the discussions of rape and sex education, both in history and in modern life. An entirely dark and negative perspective focusing on loss and a complete lack of hope for her child's future.
When I tried to kiss your balled-up little cheek, my tears washed over you, salty like the ocean I had lost.
p163- the second, only ten pages later, but after recounting a visit to the South and the role of community. Focuses on how the baby reminds her of Africa and that everyone is singing for them.
When I kissed your smooth little cheek, it tasted salty, like the ocean that had embraced me.
p243- Closes the book, focused on strength and hope.
When I kissed your smooth little cheek, it tasted salty, like the mighty ocean that had inspired me.

Now I'm wondering if this is also a comment on some inherent bias of the historical record. The perspective of the teller will colour the story itself.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
Hmm, I certainly could be wrong, but that's how I interpreted the retellings of the same scene. I went back to the book to see if that did make sense or if I'd just developed it in my head. It's really worth re-reading these three pages, I pulled the same sentence from all three here.

Now I'm wondering if this is also a comment on some inherent bias of the historical record. The perspective of the teller will colour the story itself.

Seeing the subtle differences really makes it clear that you're on the right track here, and that point totally went over my head while reading. Now that I see it, I think it's super effective!
 

Behemoth

Dostoevsky is immortal!
(he/him/his)
Sorry all, work prevented me from participating this month, but hopefully I'll be able to join for next month's book.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
This was a difficult book to read. I certainly couldn't speed through it as I can with most fiction, and a lot of non-fiction. There's a lot going on in every chapter. The author's life and experiences, her exploration of the physical remains of her ancestors, and then the living stories of those ancestors. Each chapter all of those things change and grow. I don't know how she kept it all together!
 
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