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The Black Descendants of James Madison

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

CHARLOTTESVILLE - The Other Madisons, by Eduardo Montes-Bradley, makes a strong, perhaps essential, complement to Bettye Kearse's book because it enables the viewer to appreciate how the “other Madison” family and Montpelier are bound up inextricably with each other, how the preservation of Montpelier makes it possible for the “other Madison” family to find its home and how the “other Madison” family narratives enable the Montpelier organization to come closer to its social responsibility to provide an historically accurate representation of Montpelier.

There is no substitute for seeing the big house, the fields, the kitchen restoration, and the enslaved descendants personally recovering their past, and there is no substitute for hearing the voices of the Montpelier staff registering the impact of Betty’s stories and of the enslaved descendants on the Montpelier organization.

In a way the film dramatizes the impact that the stories of the “other Madisons” griotte should have on all of us. And Betty’s closing words, that she and her generation have reconciled the contradiction of descending from “African slaves” and a “president” should stimulate each one of us to go forth, acknowledge our part in social contradictions that have their origin in racial discrimination, make our own reconciliation, and turn to the hard work of helping achieve a more just community wherever we live.

It is interesting that, as we move past the original hagiographic purpose of reclaiming these homes of our founding fathers, we see that it is the descendants of enslaved persons—and not the descendants of those founding fathers—emerge not only as the stewards, and thus sources, of important information otherwise lost, but as the individuals who have the strongest emotional ties to those places. That information so long kept alive, yet secret, by oral tradition is now generously shared. Where is the white Madison griotte? Where are the president’s descendants and their private narratives? It is a paradox, to be sure, that the present humanization, so to speak, of Montpelier comes from Betty and the other descendants of the enslaved. In that homecoming, the return of the enslaved to the beginning of their stories, we will find a new story with the potential to liberate us all—and Montpelier can take on a new role in helping us divine the relation of crafting the Constitution to achieving reconciliation of all that the Constitution left unsaid. — Jeffrey Plank

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