Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family

by Bettye Kearse

It’s the African-Americans who have the secret of America.  Or so we all feel subliminally, with a kind of “holy envy.”  That’s the expression coined by the great New Testament theologian Krister Stendahl, referring to the yearning emotion one may feel confronting another’s faith.

It’s a longing to know … the secret they know that one has been barred from knowing.  Holy envy is not an ignoble emotion.

I sent for Bettye Kearse’s family memoir after I happened to see her television interview on Book Notes.  She was in charge of her words and had, I thought, honest, wide-open eyes.  An interesting woman.

Bettye Kearse descends from James Madison Jr., America’s fourth president.  He’s the Founder who gets most credit for our key documents: the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Her ancestress on the female line was a woman whom the Madisons of Montpelier, Virginia owned as their property.  That ancestress was in turn the child of a woman born in Africa, kidnapped by Portuguese slavers, and shipped on the nightmarish Middle Passage to Virginia’s shores where the Founder’s father, James Madison Sr., imposed on her … his attentions.  So the woman violated by one of our foremost Founders was his half-sister!

Can you follow that?

I don’t know if I want to.

Kearse’s memoir embodies the practice, alive in her family, of designating one member to be the griot or griotte, the male or female chronicler of memories linked one to the next in a lineage as long and unbroken as she can render it.

In the American case, the difficulties of the chronicler are magnified by what Kearse finds to be the incessant erasure of slave records.

You could say that this erasure reflects an indifference to the value of this branch of one of America’s indispensable families.  Or you could say that this erasure reflects the national sense of guilt and moral incongruity.

There are perhaps 38 million people enslaved in the world today.  Many of them are held in regimes, or under conditions, very different from those affirmed in the U.S. Constitution.  Their terrible sufferings occasion no shame in those who tyrannize over them today.  Thus, our national sense of moral incongruity is a mark in our favor.

It’s impossible to put down the story Kearse tells.  She has rethought, re-experienced, and traced the path of her ancestors, from the Middle Passage, the arrival, the imprisoned days and violated nights of slavery, the life-and-death struggles of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and finally the subtle combats of today – more wounding because sized to fit person-to-person encounters.  As she tells it, some of those personal encounters are also touching and fine.

And yet, this hidden history is still one half of a whole.  There is a limit to what one author can compass in one book.  In her memoir, Kearse has not tried to imagine the mind of her other ancestor, the man who wrote:

The aim of every political Constitution is

… to take the most effectual precautions

for keeping [men] virtuous

whilst they continue to hold their public trust.

So the same mind that desired and authored such a constitution also severed his own desire from its connection to virtue.

The same mind!  

 Holy God!

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J. D. Vance

This book has so many endorsements (I counted 69) that I was sure it would be a terrible book.  I now think it may be something close to an American classic.

It too tells a family story.  The family of J. D. Vance moved from a region of Appalachia in Kentucky to a town in Ohio where Armco Steel provided a good living and a chance to rise into the middle class.  Like many of their neighbors, his people looked forward to their children going to college and entering the professions.  Instead, globalism took over Armco’s market.  The rich families moved away.  The better stores and restaurants closed.  And factory workers, who had sunk their earnings into homes that now nobody wanted to buy, could not move without facing the loss of all their gains and hopes.

Their children sank into drink, drugs and dependency.  The author credits grandparents for his escape.  They held out for the virtues of hard work, education and personal responsibility.  Thanks to their support and belief in him, he managed to get through college, did a stint in the Marines (who taught him the basics of adult functioning) and eventually went on to Yale Law School.  He keeps his links to the family and hillbilly origins he loves, while maintaining a self-respecting life as husband, father, provider and concerned citizen.

*     *     *

Now a word about my own origins: While I was reading these two books, I was also reviewing Henry M. Rosenthal.  I had a responsibility to do that, and to make a decision about the proper disposition of these materials.  But I had an agenda of my own.

I wanted to find out – from my father whom I credited with knowing it – the secret of being a Jew.  What’s in the longhouse?  What do the initiated know, that I don’t know?  What is the gnosis — the hidden knowledge — in my own family’s lineage?  Did my father know it?

I think he might have known it.  Probably, where he is now, he knows it.  But he didn’t, so far as I can tell, follow through on what he knew from the beginning.  For reasons best known to himself, he kept secret … the secret of what he knew.

So, what is the secret?  What do the descendants of African slaves and presidents know?  What do hillbillies know?  What do Jews know?

Whatever anybody knows:

Don’t keep it a secret.

Take the risks.

Work it out.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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