I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life


On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.

Portrait by Eduardo Montes-Bradley


October 1, 2020: Bettye Kearse


Bettye Kearse is a storyteller. I read the first fifty pages of The Other Madisons without moving.

For thousands of years, West African griots (men) and griottes (women) have served as human links between past and present, speaking the ever-expanding stories of their ancestors and the history of their people…

In this way, the story of a family is kept safe, and The Other Madisons is the story of Bettye’s family, which has its origins in the seventeenth century in two places–in England with the Maddisons (spelled with two d’s then) and in Africa, in what is now called Ghana, with Mandy (captured by slave catchers). “Without Mandy, we would not have our strength. Without Madison, [Bettye’s grandfather] said, we would not have our name.” Bettye writes,

[President] Madison had a relationship with one of his slaves, Coreen, that resulted in the birth of a son, Jim, who was sold and sent away when he was a teenager. Jim was my great-great-great grandfather.

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family is, as Michael Henry Adams wrote in The Guardian, “an extraordinary book.” It is part history, part autobiography, part biography, part historical fiction, and part photo album. “History is in names that could not or would not be written down. It is in thoughts, feelings, and memories.” Threaded throughout Bettye’s life and throughout the book is the family mantra:

Always remember–you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.

In 1990, when Bettye was forty-seven, her mother arrived at her house with a box full of photographs, land deeds, letters, wills, birth certificates. Her mother had been the griotte of her generation. Now it was Bettye’s turn. “I would be responsible for ensuring that the torch of family pride and history would not go out.” And Bettye would be the first to write it all down. Thus began a twenty-year journey that took her to Virginia and Africa and Texas and that involved tons of research and writing.

Here are some of Bettye’s mother’s memories from a train ride.

In California, there were no filthy public toilets or rusty drinking fountains under signs that said COLORED. The schools were integrated, and no one picked cotton to get by… [W]hen the train reached the South, colored diners would have to sit behind a curtain…On board, Ruby [Bettye’s mother], John, and Mack caught sight of the dining-car waiters. They were colored too! The grace of the waiters–polished gentlemen who rang hand chimes from car to car, announcing each meal–filled them with awe. Dressed in white jackets and slacks, the waiters glided, straight-backed and effortlessly, in rhythm with the music of the chimes and the hypnotic chug-hum sound and sway of the train.

You can read more about Bettye’s research in this article in the The Washington Post, and you can read more about her book in this review in The Guardian. And you can order The Other Madisons from East End Books Ptown.

Bettye’s writing has been published in the Boston Herald, River Teeth, and Black Lives Have Always Mattered, and listed as notable in The Best American Essays. She has a B.A. in Genetics from the University of California at Berkeley, a Ph.D. in Biology from New York University, and an M.D. from Case Western Reserve University. She was born in Tucson, Arizona, grew up in Northern California, and now lives in New Mexico. She and her husband have a daughter, a son-in-law, and two grandchildren.

Stay well and…

Come back on OCTOBER 1st to read how BETTYE KEARSE spends her days.