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“All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake”

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Pages
Feb 28th, 2023

by Tina Miles


In 1850, enslaved Rose learns her nine-year-old daughter Ashley will be sold after the death of the plantation’s master. Rose hurriedly packs a cotton sack with pecans, a braid of her own hair, a dress, and composed a brief note, “with my love, always” before placing the sack in Ashley’s hands. 50 years later, Ashley’s daughter Ruth engraved the tote’s origin story on the sack, and it was discovered decades later at a flea market outside of Nashville. Historian Tiya Miles traces the limited family lineage, combing plantation records for clues, and filling in narrative gaps with black historical anecdotes and the reality for African Americans during and post-slavery. Miles traces material culture, the historically feminine medium of expression, for clues about what happened, when and how. “For women, cloth also tended to represent the work of their hands, the female branches of family trees, and notions of the feminine ideal. Passing on a textile, then, symbolized women’s ability, creativity, and continuance.” Tiya Miles’ meditation on black maternal love reminds us of the limits of historical research, as records originate from powerful voices when African Americans lacked power, agency, and command of their story’s telling. 

Miles’ book is extensively documented, with the pages of notes nearly outnumbering the narrative. Miles uses the contents of the sack to trace the lived experience of black women in America. To document a history of oppression, one must look outside of books, and Miles looks directly toward the hands of women, as each artifact conveys a mother’s ability to turn pain into promise. While the sad and horrifying reality is detailed in each chapter, the resounding theme of the book is love, unconditional maternal love, eternally present even in a mother’s physical absence. Miles, like Alice Walker, explains how black women expressed emotion, often through their work: “Seeing has been oppressive work, but it has also been healing work. Sewing, like telling, is meditative. A suture is a stitch.” In the traditionally termed “low arts” of survival, cooking for food and sewing for warmth, black women found a place for self expression. And many of those material creations outlasted their creators – the soul food recipes passed down for generations and grandmother’s quilt at the bottom of a trunk. In the objects we find stories, we find the beauty in the everyday, and the emotion of a complex history.

`Tiya Miles is a professor of history at Harvard University, and her research explores the overlapping themes of African Americans, Native Americans, and women’s histories. An exceptionally beautiful and masterful storyteller, Miles combines factual evidence and narrative to breathe life into the untold stories of America’s past. 

“And if those things are textiles, stories about women’s lives seem to adhere with special tenacity, even as fabrics, because of their vulnerability to deterioration and frequent lack of attribution to a maker, have been among the last kinds of materials that historians look to in order to understand what has occurred, how, and why.”