The Other Madisons

Portrait by Eduardo Montes-Bradley

The Other Madisons: An American Griotte’s Quest

When my mother handed me the box of our family memorabilia and said: “I want to give you plenty of time to write the book,” I became the eighth-generation griotte for my African-American family. The time had come for the story of the Other Madisons to be included in recorded history.

Without the generations of our family’s griots (men) and griottes (women), who stayed true to the West African tradition of oral history, those of us alive today would not know about our ancestors, Mandy and Katy, who were stolen from Africa, or that we descend from President James Madison and one of his slaves, Coreen. We would not know how our family credo, “Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president,” began during slavery, nor would we know how it evolved with the changing times.

For the family griots and griottes before me, and for many other members of my family, our credo has been a source of inspiration and pride, but when I hear the credo, speak it, or write it, I think about the abuses the five generations of slaves in my family had to endure: humiliation, uncertainty, and physical and emotional harm—including rape.

In order to understand the hearts and minds of my enslaved ancestors, and of my white ancestors, too, I embarked on a twenty-five-year journey of discovery. I found out a lot about my ancestors, our country, and myself. I also learned that wherever African slaves walked, recorded history silenced their voices and buried their footsteps—under a brick walkway at Montpelier, James Madison’s former plantation; beneath a gaudy concession stand in Lagos, Portugal; on the shore beside a slave-holding fortress in Ghana, West Africa; in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean; and under a federal building in New York City. My book, The Other Madisons: An American Griotte’s Quest, is not only a personal family history but also homage to millions of silenced, invisible African Americans.

When some twenty publishers read the first rendition of my book, many of them wanted proof, including DNA evidence, that I am a descendant of President Madison. They also said the storytelling was too “quiet.” I was discouraged, but rather than give up, I returned to Madison’s former plantation to participate in a workshop, “Interpreting the African-American Landscape at Montpelier.” The workshop’s focus was on seeing beyond the story of our nation as it was conceived and written from the select perspective of select people. I was not alone.

The workshop was mind-blowing. When one of the speakers reminded that participants that the authors of the United States Constitution, including James Madison, deliberately excluded the words “slaves” and “slavery” from the founding document of this country, I realized that the Constitution had set the precedent for the exclusion of slaves from historical records. So, how could I prove my family’s story if slaves—merchandise to be inventoried, numbered, labeled (sometimes branded) and sold—were not included as people in the history that mattered to those who created and maintained the records? The problem is not DNA, I realized; the problem is the Constitution.

I revised my book. And it is not “quiet.”