Review: All That She Carried

All That She Carried

By Luanne Clark

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.