Book Review: Mother’s love for enslaved child inspires ‘All That She Carried’

Cotton sack given to daughter sold into slavery spawns investigation.
MacArthur "genius" grant fellow, Tiya Miles, Harvard Professor and author of the new book, "All That She Carried." 
Courtesy of Kimberly P. Mitchell

Credit: Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NET

Credit: Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NET

MacArthur "genius" grant fellow, Tiya Miles, Harvard Professor and author of the new book, "All That She Carried." Courtesy of Kimberly P. Mitchell

In 2016, the Ossabaw Island Foundation held a coastal nature symposium in Savannah where Tiya Miles and nine other leading historians presented research on the Georgia barrier island’s origins and “how the past has shaped the present and could affect the future.”

Miles, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship recipient and Harvard University history professor, talked about her research on water’s spiritual and mythological role in the lives of the barrier islands’ enslaved Black people. But a chance meeting at the conference with a Savannah newspaper columnist led Miles on a four-year quest through Charleston, South Carolina, and its surrounding plantations in search of another origin story — that of an antebellum cotton sack embroidered with a tale of pain and love so searing, that to this day the sack seems to carry the weight of spirits and myth.

“All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake,” (Penguin Random House, $28), is Miles’ deeply and lovingly researched account of a cotton sack filled in desperation and despair by an enslaved Black mother named Rose in Charleston. The bag was her parting gift to her 9-year-old daughter, Ashley, as the little girl was about to be sold in the early 1850s to another plantation.

At the time, the sack was unremarkable, a rough, cotton duffle that probably had once held seeds or grain. Next to Ashley, it probably looked about the size of a large pillow case. Inside it, Rose placed three tangible things that might be no less than salvation for a child about to be made, essentially, motherless: a ragged dress, three handfuls of pecans and a braid of Rose’s hair. The bag’s empty space was filled with something only Ashley could see and feel: her mother’s love.

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We know this because four generations later, in Philadelphia in 1921, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth Middleton embroidered these words on the sack, which had been passed down from slavery:

“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 (sic) 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″

By the time Miles saw an image of the sack online, it was part of the permanent collection of the Middleton Place Plantation, outside Charleston, and was on loan to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Seeing the image of the worn, patched sack and how Ruth’s embroidery “entered her family’s humble sack into the written record from which histories of the nation are made,” Miles has sought to make Rose, Ashley and Ruth’s story whole through meticulous research. Or at least as full as plantation ledgers, census records, estate records and newspaper clippings will allow.

As Miles points out, the stories of the enslaved were rarely recorded. Indeed, after years of research and detective work, she could find only a couple mentions of Rose and Ashley in records that listed them as property with an ascribed dollar value. Ashley at 9 years old was valued by her enslaver at $300, not factoring inflation.

But even as a historian’s creed dictates that corroborated facts are the most important ones, Miles honors the women with not only the scant facts she could gather, but also with belief that the story Ruth told was true. To bolster that belief and to fill in the gaps of the record, Miles relies on narratives from the formerly enslaved, primarily those of women, to illustrate what life was like for Black women and girls such as Rose and Ashley. Among them are the narratives of Elizabeth Keckley, seamstress and designer for first lady Mary Todd Lincoln; Harriet Jacobs (”Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”) and Louisa Picquet, whose hellish life as a “fancy” or sexual slave of three different white men for more than two decades, was told in a book written after she made it to freedom.

For as much as “All That She Carried” is a feminist document of ingenuity, perseverance and abiding care — of not only one mother and daughter but hundreds of thousands of such enslaved women — it is also a lesson on the mechanics of slavery.

Each chapter examines not simply the items in the sack, but the larger story of their role and meaning in the slave trade. We learn that clothing for enslaved people was constructed of the lowest quality, abrasive, dull fabric available and was rarely replaced by enslavers even when they were beyond threadbare.

The pecans were to stave off hunger that was a constant for the enslaved, who rarely were given decent or enough food to sustain them. But it is the discussion of hair, and how it was used by some enslavers as a way to control and degrade the enslaved, that is especially chilling. The episodes bring to mind the contemporary case of a high school wrestling coach having a player’s dreadlocks sheared away before a match because they were deemed unacceptable. In each case, then and now, the degradation was meant to control.

Ashley’s sack was found at a Tennessee flea market about 13 years ago by a shopper who eventually donated it to the Middleton Plantation. While it was on display there, it often elicited tears from visitors, so much so that a curator kept tissues on hand. Miles’ book gets as close as any document can to explaining why the sack remains so powerful. It contains great misery, but it is also a testament to the power of story, witness and unyielding love.


“All That She Carried”

by Tiya Miles

Penguin Random House

377 pages, $28