All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake (Hardcover)
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A renowned historian traces the life of a single object handed down through three generations of Black women to craft an extraordinary testament to people who are left out of the archives.
“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 with a few precious items as a token of love and to try to ensure Ashley’s survival. 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 bag in spare yet haunting language— including Rose’s wish that “It be filled with my Love always.” Ruth’s sewn words, the reason we remember Ashley’s sack today, evoke a sweeping family story of loss and of love passed down through generations. Now, in this illuminating, deeply moving new book inspired by Rose’s gift to Ashley, historian Tiya Miles carefully unearths these women’s faint presence in archival records to follow the paths of their lives—and the lives of so many women like them—to write a singular and revelatory history of the experience of slavery, and the uncertain freedom afterward, in the United States.
The search to uncover this history is part of the story itself. For where the historical record falls short of capturing Rose’s, Ashley’s, and Ruth’s full lives, Miles turns to objects and to art as equally important sources, assembling a chorus of women’s and families’ stories and critiquing the scant archives that for decades have overlooked so many. The contents of Ashley’s sack— a tattered dress, handfuls of pecans, a braid of hair, “my Love always”—are eloquent evidence of the lives these women lived. As she follows Ashley’s journey, Miles metaphorically unpacks the bag, deepening its emotional resonance and exploring the meanings and significance of everything it contained.
All That She Carried is a poignant story of resilience and of love passed down through generations of women against steep odds. It honors the creativity and fierce resourcefulness of people who preserved family ties even when official systems refused to do so, and it serves as a visionary illustration of how to reconstruct and recount their stories today.
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.
“Tiya Miles is a gentle genius. The histories she writes are as deeply feeling as they are brilliantly researched and her writing is both elegant and tender. 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
“We live in a world that undervalues, ignores, and erases the work and the humanity of Black women. 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
“Blending urgency, imagination, and poetic prose, 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—it is a fitting tribute to Ashley, her mother Rose, and all those foremothers who endured.”—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. She also allows readers to witness the historian's craft, carefully reconstructing marginalized and forgotten lives from and beyond unyielding and indifferent archives. 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 . . . A strikingly vivid account of the impact of connection on this family and others.”—Kirkus (starred review)
“Filled with rare, archival photographs of objects from the era, this volume is a natural choice for book clubs and a must-buy for public and academic libraries alike.”—Booklist (starred review)