The Layered Histories in Black Family Keepsakes

Tiya Miles traces a mother and daughter’s story through a cotton sack.

Tiya Miles and Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Tiya Miles (top) and Tomiko Brown-Nagin Screenshot by Harvard Magazine

Historian Tiya A. Miles conjured the haunting image of a cotton sack for her audience at a Radcliffe Institute talk on Tuesday, where she read from and discussed her newly released book, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. The bag tells the story of a mother and daughter, Rose and Ashley, who were separated by slavery but bonded by love. In 1921, their descendent Ruth Middleton embroidered the object with an account of its—and their— history:


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


Miles, professor of history and director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, said she came into the artifact’s orbit at an environmental history conference in Savannah, Georgia. After she delivered a talk, a local journalist approached her and asked if she “knew” Ashley’s sack. “I thought his language was interesting. He asked me if I knew what seemed to be an object,” Miles recalled. “I told him that I didn’t know this thing. He told me that I had to see it.” 

Once she finally saw the sack—which will make its next appearance on display at the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina—“I felt compelled to write about it,” Miles said. “It was so beautiful and terrible and concentrated and real, that I almost felt like I could fall into it. So I changed my plans for a book that I wanted to write next.”

Miles’s curiosity about Rose and Ashley came up against what she termed “the conundrum of the archives”—the fact that the historical record of marginalized people is paltry. “What do we do in this situation? We could decide, well, there’s just not enough there. We won’t be able to put together a convincing argument or piece together a full picture, so we might as well just put that to the side,” she explained. But that’s not a real option, she cautioned: ethically, scholars cannot default only to the perspective of enslavers and slaveholders.

“You have to think creatively,” Miles said. She put together the puzzle of the sack by starting with its four metaphorical corners. The first corner was the experience of black women in the early to mid nineteenth century, as established through letters, photographs, and oral histories. The second was the “layered histories” of Charleston, South Carolina, the South, the United States, and even the world at large. “The story of cotton is a broad one,” after all, she explained.

Miles said the third corner of her puzzle was black women’s contemporary theorizing about their condition through writings and novels, noting that imagined stories of enslavement “get at emotional or interior kind of truths about the experience that we can’t access through historical documents.” The fourth and final corner, she concluded, was secondary literature in object history, the history of material culture, and more.

The contents of the sack—long-gone but immortalized in Ruth’s embroidery—were also crucial to Miles’ exploration of the artifact. “I think they’re sacred, in a way,” she said of the bag’s contents. “They’re also very basic, and I think they address the most foundational needs that Rose may have thought Ashley would have, as Ashley was being sold away from her.”

Rose’s curation of “material and emotional resources” shows she was “brilliant,” Miles said. The items in the sack were laden with a multiplicity of uses and meanings, she noted: pecans, for example, were extremely nutrient rich—but also a luxury good in the area, making them tradeable.

The braid of hair, meanwhile, was a “spiritual connector” between mother and daughter, in addition to an emblem of Rose’s autonomy. “Technically, Rose didn’t own her hair—she didn’t own her body. Her enslaver did. So for Rose to actually cut her own hair and to give it to her daughter meant taking possession of her own body,” Miles said. The braid “represented the message of that independence, that was being conveyed to Ashley.”

Radcliffe dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a legal historian who led the conversation with Miles, asked how contemporary Americans can contextualize their thinking about the history of material objects while living in an era swamped by mass consumption. “There are whole genres of books and television that are dedicated to helping us manage the volume of things we’ve accumulated,” she said. “What makes material objects such a rich guide to people’s lives, people’s values, throughout history—particularly for marginalized people?”

Miles urged the audience to remember that “things held important value for black people who recognized a thin line between actual things, defined as such, and their own persons and their own bodies.” After slavery, she said, amid poverty and racial violence, black people “also had a very hard time acquiring things and holding on to things.”

Despite the often mindlessly acquisitive ethos of modern American culture, Miles said researching her book brought her “closer to the recognition that it really is out of material sources and items and objects that we as human beings fashion our lives and make sense of our lives.” She pointed to the fact that her Zoom background was curated with intentionally chosen objects, like a photograph and mementos from her grandmother: “They signal something about who I am or who I hope to be.”

When an audience member asked to learn more about the pink and green quilt hanging behind her, Miles smiled. She explained it was crafted by her great aunt Margaret, who had saved the family by rescuing a single cow when they were run off their farm. The quilt belonged to Margaret’s sister—Miles’s grandmother—who passed it down to her.

“It moves me because it reminds me of those women,” she said. “It makes me appreciate how far I have come and how far my generation has come from the time that they lived in, when they had to be terrified of a particular kind of racial violence, which was allowed and accepted by society.”

Read more articles by Juliet Isselbacher

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