As a historian, Tia Miles is well aware of the professional obligation to proceed with caution, to prevent her own expectations from exceeding the material.
But as someone studying the history of African Americans, Native Americans, and women, she has also been forced to face the “enigma of the archives”—the way the written record has supported those whose They had the means (training, status, money) to document their lives.
Such archives lean toward power, say white and male, making them particularly frightening guides to the history of the antebellum south. “It is an insanity, if not an irony, that unlocking the history of unfree people depends on the content of their legal owners,” Miles writes in “All That She Cared”, a book about women and chattel slavery. The single item framed as a new book: a cotton sack dating to the mid-19th century, given to her daughter Ashley by a slave woman named Rose.
Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered the sack with an inscription announcing its origins:
my great-grandmother rose
Ashley’s mother gave her this sack when
She was sold to South Carolina at the age of 9
It’s a torn dress 3 fists. holds
Pecan rose hair braid. Told
May it always be full of my love
he never saw her again
ashley is my grandma
The artwork now known as Ashley’s Sack is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on loan from Middleton Place, South Carolina, where so many onlookers wept that curators handed out tissues next to the display .
Certainly little is known about the sack. It was turned into a flea market in Nashville in 2007, where a customer found it in a bin among scraps of old clothes. Miles tries to learn and reconstruct what she can, taking care to respect the silence in the historical record, while refusing to leave Ashley and Rose in “that discreet abyss”.
“All That She Cared” is a remarkable book, striking a delicate balance between two disparate perspectives: Miles’ loyalty to her archival material as she reconciles facts based on evidence; and her guesses about this strange thing, as she uses what is known about the lives of other enslaved women to guess what could have been. “This is not a traditional history,” Miles writes in his introduction. “It leans toward invocation rather than argument, and has more attention than a monograph.”
Nevertheless, it includes the historical sleuth, as Miles details the discovery of Rose and Ashley, confirming pioneering archival work by cultural anthropologist Mark Auslander. Rose was a very common name; Ashley, at least not for one girl. A rose, without Ashley, was unlikely to be the rose Miles was looking for.
There was a record that changed both names to a property listing belonging to Robert Martin of South Carolina shortly after his death in 1852. The death of a slave was often a moment of unpredictability and consequent panic for those whom he claimed as his property; This was when his assets were most likely to be liquidated or sold in parts, and the children were separated from their parents.
Miles, a professor at Harvard and recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, cross-referencing his sources, explains that we have rightly found Rose that the constraints are “certain but not absolute.” She then looks into the sack itself, using the items Rose gave to Ashley to untie several threads. She makes a connection to the growing cotton trade from the sacks; The lucrative mass harvest, Miles says, has made for an even more brutal and reprehensible type of slavery than the established system of rice farming on South Carolina’s swampy coast. The “tattered dress” allows him to elaborate on how the slave system’s reach extended to state laws, which codified the types of material that enslaved people were allowed to wear.
Noting “3 handfuls of pecans,” Miles writes about food and nutrition; Pecans must have been a delicious dish in Charleston at the time, leading her to wonder if Rose might be a cook. And the braid gives Miles a chance to write about hair and what it meant – to punish enslaved women, it was also full of symbolism, a tie between loved ones separated by distance or death.
The trauma of separation – from Rose to Ashley, from their mothers to daughters, from their parents to their children – emerges as a central theme of the book, as Miles tries to imagine himself in the lives of women whose She writes about “We must assume that Rose always knew she would give birth to a motherless child,” Miles writes. Much sentimentality has attached itself to the poetry of Ashley’s sack and Ruth’s embroidered inscription, but the sack was originally an emergency kit, born out of hopeless need. In slavery, Miles writes, mother’s love becomes entangled in matters of survival, and violent discipline was sometimes seen as a defense: “A formerly enslaved woman painfully remembered how her mother He was beaten up the same way his mother was abused by whites. ‘She used to thank me for whipping me.'”
Miles traces the lineage through Ruth Middleton and her daughter Dorothy, who died in 1988, leaving no heirs. What is extraordinary about Ashley’s sack is that something so intimate was preserved in this way – pressed by a mother into the hands of her child and carried forward, so that a descendant who had heard oral history for the first time, a Day could have decided to write it on the object itself. The result, as Miles shows, is a delicate item that encompasses so much, “a place in our national story where great mistakes were made, deep pains felt, love endured against all odds and passed on to generations to come.” The vision of existence remained.