Review of All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, by Tiya Miles, New York: Random House, 2021, 385 pp, $18.99.

By: Elizabeth Reichman

Department of History, The University of Texas at San Antonio

Where can a historian turn “when the archival ground collapses beneath (her)”?[1]  How can she reconstruct past lives when the archival record of those lives is “abysmally thin?”[2] In her 2021 book All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, Harvard professor and MacArthur Fellow Tiya Miles uses an item of material culture, an embroidered cotton bag, to conjure vividly the story of five generations of black American women spanning the years from 1840 to 1940. She warns the reader “this is not a traditional history.”[3] Though firmly grounded in evidence and context, her narrative also “accommodate(s) supposition and imagination.”[4]  

The bag is a stained and much-patched cotton sack which Miles first saw on her computer screen in a photograph brought to her attention by another scholar. She recalls being “stunned” as she read the stitched inscription, which described how the seamstress’s enslaved great-grandmother, Rose, gave this bag to daughter Ashley, age 9, on the eve of the child’s sale to another plantation.[5] Rose packed for Ashley “a tattered dress, 3 handfulls (sic) of pecans, a braid of Roses (sic)  hair” and promised the bag would “be filled with my love always.”[6] The seamstress, Ashley’s granddaughter, possessor of the bag and its history, declared in embroidery “she never saw her again,” then signed and dated her work as if in an affidavit: Ruth Middleton 1921. [7]

Miles was determined to know the history of the object. She began by contacting the Middleton Place Foundation, the institution that owned the artifact. The senior curator told her a flea market shopper sold the item to the museum. Once on display, Ashley’s sack caused so many observers to burst into tears that docents carried tissues. Miles, who did not cry, conceded that “no remnant from those dark times had arrested my spirit quite like this one.”[8] The embroidered message captured so much emotion, so much loss, in so terse a tale, it was a summary of slavery. The author traveled to see the sack where it was then displayed, in the basement gallery of the National Museum of African American History and learned more about the meaning of things and ownership and of chattel possessing property.

Miles next sought to find the people mentioned on the artifact, Rose, Ashley, and Ruth Middleton. Ruth could be discerned in the public record, listed, for example, in the census and written about in black newspapers. She left behind no diary or memoir or letters, however. The stitched saga of her foremothers was all that remained in her own voice. Miles found several candidates to be Rose by searching the archives of the Middleton Plantation, but only one Rose with the crucial “identifying feature: her love for a child named Ashley.”[9]  The author believed she had located the women in place and in time.

But how to revive their stories? Miles laments the “conundrum of the archives,” that the few, spare facts about their lives had to be gleaned from slavers’ records before she animates their narratives in a more creative way.[10] Following the path forged by Marisa Fuentes, she reads “along the bias grain,” to use an ironically appropriate textile-based metaphor. In plantation records, Rose was valued at over $500. This meant she must have been a highly skilled and valued slave, likely in the prime of her life. By reading the slavers’ records diagonally, in a new light, Miles hypothesizes that Rose may well have worked in the Middleton family’s home in downtown Charleston as a cook. To understand what that position would have entailed and to imagine what Rose’s life would have been like, the author relates the background of the Middleton family and the history of Charleston. By recreating Rose’s environment, Miles is able to offer an educated guess about her life.[11]

But Miles goes beyond a diagonal reading of archival records. Following the example of Saidya Hartman, she imagines the inner life, the mind, and the emotions of her subjects. Miles does not have any evidence of what Rose thought when faced with losing her daughter or what Ashley felt when she was torn from her mother’s arms. She does have, however, the memoirs of other enslaved women, such as Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley, who were faced with similar crises. Miles universalizes the emotions of these women to understand what Rose and Ashley must have felt. To further explore Rose’s mindset, she pursues the meaning of each item in the cotton bag, the braid, the dress, and the pecans, and concludes that Rose “address(ed) a hierarchy of needs: food, clothing, shelter, identity, and…an affirmation of worthiness.”[12]

In this beautifully written, lyrical history of a frayed cotton sack and the women who owned it, replete with footnotes and illustrative photographs, Miles reminds the reader that “(h)orrible things take place. Nevertheless, survival is possible.”[13]  A victim can transform herself into a witness through memory and retelling. In uncertain, frightening times, “(w)ho better to show us how to act when hope for the future is under threat than a mother like Rose?”[14]

[1] Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake (New York: Random House, 2021), 301.

[2] Miles, All That She Carried, 301.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 295.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid., 294.

[9] Ibid., 65.

[10] Ibid., 300.

[11] Erica Armstrong Dunbar used the same technique with great success in Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.

[12] Miles, All That She Carried, 20.

[13] Ibid., 274.

[14] Ibid., xv.