All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake (Hardcover)
When I sit down to write a book review, I feel an obligation to my readers and to myself. I hope to inspire readers to pick up the book that I am reviewing and I try to do a good enough job that I am pleased with my product. This time, however, I experienced a new feeling. When I sat down to write this review, I felt an obligation to the book itself. All That She Carried won the prestigious 2021 nonfiction National Book Award and it’s one that I hope we all read.
Author Tiya Miles is an American historian and a history professor at Harvard and Radcliffe. She’s written 5 books about the Black American experience. Among these were her first book entitled Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom. She also wrote The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. I admit it: I am not generally a nonfiction fan; I much prefer a story. But Miles makes history come alive with her exhaustive research and a writing style that is extremely readable for those of us who aren’t intellectual heavyweights.
All That She Carried follows in the footsteps of her previous histories. I found it intriguing and insightful. At a Tennessee flea market in 2007, an unsuspecting white woman purchased a run-of-the-mill cotton sack, about the size of a standard pillow case. When she got it home she found it had been hand embroidered with these words: “My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my love always she never saw her again Ashley is my grandmother- Ruth Middleton, 1921”
From that simple sack and its embroidered message, Miles has presented a probable history of Rose, her daughter Ashley, and their descendants up through Ruth Middleton, the woman who did the embroidery on her family heirloom. Starting with Ruth and working back through artifacts and records, Miles was able to trace a potential history back to Rose. Of course, the women’s stories after slavery were more easily researched. Antebellum census records did not include enslaved people, and birth, death, and marriage records were not kept. Miles searched extensively through property transfers, slave naming traditions, wills, and personal correspondence to create a plausible history of Rose and her daughter Ashley. It was fascinating to learn about the research, and yet heart wrenching to think about the generations of enslaved people who lived in the shadow of “official” white society.
One of my favorite chapters of All That She Carried is “Rose’s Inventory”. In this section Miles delves into the significance of each of the items that Rose included in Ashley’s sack. A dress, pecans, and a lock of hair. Each item was selected for its importance in hoping to ensure Ashley’s safety as the nine year old was led from the auction block and away from her mother forever.
The next chapter, “The Auction Block”, was devastating. The anguish of enslaved women are made personal and vivid through Rose and Ashley’s eyes. By using Rose and Ashley, Miles is able to tell the story of generations of enslaved women in an honest, no-holds-barred narrative. These women, of necessity, were courageous and determined. Similar to women everywhere, love and family were the most important pieces of their lives. Their enslaved circumstances made maintaining that love and family difficult beyond our meager imaginations.
“Conclusion: It Be Filled” brings it all together. Miles talks about the importance of finding, remembering, and learning from our history. My favorite lines are in this chapter–they are thought provoking: she reminds us that a sack is “a thing that holds something else…a book is a sack; a medicine bundle is a sack; a house is a sack; a church is a sack; even a museum is a sack. We must add, too, that the earth is a sack. All are containers for carrying.” What we decide to carry in our “sacks”, tells a lot about who we are.
Besides all the new information I learned about the atrocities of slavery, the daily lives of the enslaved, technology and textiles, All That She Carried is an examination of slavery generally and its effects on women and families in particular. If you want to read something to celebrate February as Black History Month, this is the one that I would suggest. And if you want to get a head start on Women’s History Month (March), this is also the one I’d recommend. History and humanity at the forefront, Tiya Miles has told the story of family, motherhood, and the culture of African American women from 1860-1940. Fascinating, relevant, and well worth the read.— Luanne Clark
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A renowned historian traces the life of a single object handed down through three generations of Black women to craft a “deeply layered and insightful” (The Washington Post) testament to people who are left out of the archives.
WINNER: PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Lawrence W. Levine Award, Darlene Clark Hine Award • ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Washington Post, Slate, Vulture, Publishers Weekly
“A history told with brilliance and tenderness and fearlessness.”—Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States
In 1850s South Carolina, an enslaved woman named Rose faced a crisis: the imminent sale of her daughter Ashley. Thinking quickly, she packed a cotton bag for her with a few items, and, soon after, the nine-year-old girl was separated from her mother and sold. Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered this family history on the sack in spare, haunting language.
Historian Tiya Miles carefully traces these women’s faint presence in archival records, and, where archives fall short, she turns to objects, art, and the environment to write a singular history of the experience of slavery, and the uncertain freedom afterward, in the United States. All That She Carried is a poignant story of resilience and love passed down against steep odds. It honors the creativity and resourcefulness of people who preserved family ties when official systems refused to do so, and it serves as a visionary illustration of how to reconstruct and recount their stories today
FINALIST: Kirkus Prize, Mark Lynton History Prize • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, NPR, Time, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Smithsonian Magazine, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ms. magazine, Book Riot, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist
About the Author
Tiya Miles is professor of history and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. She is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship and the Hiett Prize in the Humanities from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Miles is the author of The Dawn of Detroit, which won the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, among other honors, as well as the acclaimed books Ties That Bind, The House on Diamond Hill, The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts, and Tales from the Haunted South, a published lecture series.
“A remarkable book.”—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
“Deeply and lovingly researched . . . a testament to the power of story, witness, and unyielding love.”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Through [Miles’s] interpretation, the humble things in the sack take on ever-greater meaning, its very survival seems magical, and Rose’s gift starts to feel momentous in scale.”—Rebecca Onion, Slate
“A brilliant exercise in historical excavation and recovery . . . With creativity, determination, and great insight, Miles illuminates the lives of women who suffered much, but never forgot the importance of love and family.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello
“[An] extraordinary story . . . Unique and unforgettable.”—Ms.
“[A] powerful history of women and slavery.”—The New Yorker
“[A] sparkling tale.”—Oprah Daily
“Tiya Miles is a gentle genius . . . All That She Carried is a gorgeous book and a model for how to read as well as feel the precious artifacts of Black women’s lives.”—Imani Perry, author of Breathe: A Letter to My Sons
“All That She Carried is a moving literary and visual experience about love between a mother and daughter and about many women descendants down through the years. Above all it is Miles’s lyrical story, written in her signature penetrating prose, about the power of objects and memory, as well as human endurance, in the history of slavery. The book is nothing short of a revelation.”—David W. Blight, Yale University, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
“Ashley’s Sack, as it is known, with its short and simple message of intergenerational love, becomes a portal through which Tiya Miles views and reimagines the inner lives of Black women. She excavates the history of Black women who face insurmountable odds and invent a language that can travel across time.”—Michael Eric Dyson, author of Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America
“Tiya Miles uses the tools of her trade to tend to Black people, to Black mothers and daughters, to our wounds, to collective Black love and loss. This book demonstrates Miles’s signature genius in its rare balance of both rigor and care.”—Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower
“All That She Carried is a masterpiece work of African American women’s history that reveals what it takes to survive and even thrive. Read this book and then pass it on to someone you love.”—Martha S. Jones, author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All
“Tiya Miles has written a beautiful book about the tragic materiality of black women’s lives across three generations, through slavery and freedom. This book is for anyone interested in learning about black people's centrality to American history.”—Stephanie Jones-Rogers, author of They Were Her Property
“[A] brilliant and compassionate account.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)