Review of All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake
Author(s): Erin Green, Jessica Enoch
Erin Green is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland in the English Department. On the Language, Writing, and Rhetoric track, they study literacy studies, community writing, writing program administration, composition pedagogy, Black queer studies, and critical race theory.
Jessica Enoch is Professor of English at the University of Maryland, where she directs the Academic Writing Program. Her recent publications include Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work; Mestiza Rhetorics: An Anthology of Mexicana Activism in the Spanish-Language Press, 1887-1922 (co-edited with Cristina Ramírez), Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor (co-edited with David Gold), and Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies (co-edited with Jordynn Jack). Her current project is titled Remembering Suffrage: Feminist Memory and Activism at the Centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment.African American, archival methods, enslavement, May 2022, women's history
Miles, Tiya. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake. Random House, 2021.
Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake has been widely acclaimed on the national scene: All That She Carried is a National Book Award winner; it was celebrated through reviews in the Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Review of Books, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, and New York Times. Miles’ book has garnered even more praise from figures like Brittany Cooper, Jill Lepore, and Michael Eric Dyson. In this review for Peitho, we join the chorus in agreement that All That She Carried is a remarkably compelling book on so many fronts. Our purpose for this review, however, is to draw attention to how this book speaks to and invigorates the concerns of feminist rhetoricians and feminist historiographers of rhetoric and to mark it as one especially suited for our classrooms, for we believe the book has so much to say to us and our students as we pursue our investments in Black women’s history, historiography, and public memory; questions of intersectionality and power, as well as archival methods and methodologies, not to mention our interests in rhetoric’s relationship to textiles, materiality, foodways, and spatial rhetorics. Indeed, we (Erin and Jess) taught this book in an undergraduate feminist theory course in fall 2021, and we spent the semester dwelling on the impactful and moving messages this book had for us and our students. We thus use this review to shine light on All that She Carried for Peitho readers; it is a book that has the potential to deepen and direct the work we do as scholars, teachers, and students.
The focal point of Miles’ book is a textile sack that Rose, a Black women enslaved in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1850s, created for her daughter Ashley upon their horrific separation when Ashley was sold at the age of nine at a slave auction. Miles explains how, in anticipation of the auction, Rose prepared this “emergency pack” for Ashley—one that should be read as “a mother’s prescient act of provision” (30). Ashley’s sack exemplifies the radical imagining that Black women, especially mothers, must have used in such times of despair in which they had to hope for their child’s safety and survival in the face of almost certain violence. Against all odds, Ashley and the sack Ruth prepared for her survived, and in All That She Carried, Miles tracks the passage of this heirloom to Ruth, Ashley’s granddaughter, who embroidered onto the sack these words:
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
All That She Carried is a meditation on this maternal and generational relationship between Rose, Ashley, and Ruth, in which Miles explores the contents of the sack and their meaning as well as what the contents reveal about enslavement, survival, maternal love, and the preservation and persistence of Black women’s stories and their history. This is a book about love, trauma, resilience, and hope, but All That She Carried is also about the inventive archival and historiographic strategies Miles leveraged to tell these women’s stories.
Throughout the book, Miles comments on the research methods she uses to stitch together the lives of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth. Her reflections are immediately noteworthy to historians in our field, as Miles considers what she calls “archival deficit” (18) and “archival diminishment” (18)—archival realities in which the lives of enslavers are recorded while there is little traditional documentation of enslaved people’s, especially enslaved women’s, lives. Miles counters such deficits by employing creative archival practices that draw on the “Black feminist historical methods” of scholars such as Nell Irvin Painter and Marisa Fuentes–methods that “refuse to abandon Black women to the discursive abyss” (17). Miles especially takes up Fuentes’ practice of “reading archival documents ‘along the bias grain,’ which refers to the angled line across a swath of fabric where a natural give already exists” (300). Like Fuentes, Miles uses a “diagonal reading of documents [that] looks beyond what seems straightforward and feels for the stretch in the scholar’s materials, the leeway that more likely reveals hidden interiors and obfuscated realities” (300). Important too is what Miles “counts” as an archive. True, her historiography draws from “traditional” archives such as those at the College of Charleston and Schlesinger libraries as well as the Avery Research Center and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, but most critically, Miles also sees Ashley’s material sack as an archive unto itself: Miles “seek[s] out the actual material—the things enslaved people touched, made, used, and carried—in order to understand the past” (17).
Feminist rhetoricians will no doubt discern echoes in Miles’ research strategy as it resonates with the work of scholars such as Chery Glenn, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and Gesa Kirsch. Glenn has similarly documented the necessity of “reading [materials] crookedly and telling it slant” (8), while Royster and Kirsch call feminist rhetoricians “to account for what we ‘know’ by gathering whatever evidence can be gathered,” but then to employ both critical imagination and strategic contemplation to look “between, above, around, and beyond this evidence to speculate methodologically about probabilities, that is, what might be true based on what we have in hand” (71). Additionally, Miles’ investment in the material artifact of the sack and the contents within it connects to the methodological work of feminist rhetoricians such as Sonia Arrellano, Maureen Goggin, and Vanessa Sohan. Miles’ work throughout the book invigorates these scholarly conversations about the relevance of the material, as she argues, “things become bearers of memory and information, especially when enhanced by stories that expand their capacity to carry meaning” (13). Miles zeroes in on the importance of textiles, asserting that if the “materials being researched are textiles, [then] stories about women’s lives seem to adhere with special tenacity,” this is especially so with fabrics, Miles asserts: “because of their vulnerability to deterioration and frequent lack of attribution to a maker, [fabrics] have been among the last kinds of materials that historians look to in order to understand what has occurred, how, and why” (13-14).
Of course, the most significant aspect of Miles’ research method is her employment of these inventive strategies to recover the lives of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth, to trace the journey of the textile sack, and to unpack its contents. In Chapter 1, “Ruth’s Record,” Miles begins with the story of finding the sack-–a story similar, Miles suggests, to an “episode of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow” (30). Almost twenty years ago in 2007, the sack was found by a white woman shopping at an outdoor flea market near Nashville, Tennessee. Interested in the message embroidered on the sack, the woman tracked the sack to Middleton Place–”once the home of the famous wealthy Charleston slaveholders Henry Middleton and Mary Williams Middleton and now a nonprofit organization” (31). Miles then relays how curators researched and displayed the sack not only at Middleton Place but also at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As Miles describes the “allure” of Ashley’s sack (36), she also reflects on the “complicated dynamics of race in processes of museum collecting, philanthropy, and stewardship” (37). Miles concludes this chapter initiating her investigation of the sack’s journey, starting in South Carolina in the 1850s at the “scene of the crime–the sale of a child away from her mother” and investigating how this crime was “shaped by the environmental, economic, political, and social conditions that precipitated it” (42).
Miles dedicates Chapter 2 “Searching for Rose” to recovering Rose’s life and story, and here the question that drives her investigation is, “how, in this seaport city [of Charleston]. . ., do we go about finding one unfree woman?” (61). In describing her search, Miles explains that the only way to discern Rose’s archival trace is by identifying her name in the records of those who enslaved her: “We can trace unfree people through the changing of lands” (67) and their “lists of possessions” (69). The key to finding the Rose Miles is looking for is “her love for a child named Ashley” (65). Searching for these names together brings Miles to a Charleston slave owner named Robert Martin whose list of enslaved people includes both names. Miles’ critical reading of Martin’s records offers other clues to Rose’s identity: his holdings reveal that Rose’s monetary value was $700, and Miles deduces that this high price could be because of her sexual appeal to slave holders like Martin or because of her talent as a seamstress or cook. As Miles searches for Rose in Martin’s materials, though, she steps back to consider what this method signals, writing “It is madness if not irony that unlocking the history of unfree people depends on the materials of their legal owners, who held the lion’s share of visibility in their time, and ours” (58). While this method offers insights about Rose, Miles asserts that this “default” method is “one we must resist,” and we must do so because “not one record in the Martin family papers describes Rose or the life she lived. Her cares and kindnesses, fears and frailties, fade behind a wall of silence” (77).
In Chapter 3, “Packing the Sack,” Miles describes the exigence for Rose to prepare the sack for Ashley: the death of their slaveholder, Robert Martin, and the and the sale of his “possessions,” which included Ashley. To Miles, Rose’s decision to make the sack for Ashley “highlights an essential element of enslaved women’s experience[:] Black women were creators, constantly making the slate of things necessary to sustain the life of the family” (102). As she meditates on Rose’s preparations, Miles employs a historiographic strategy she relies on throughout the book: when the specific details that attend to Rose, Ashley, or Ruth fall away, Miles consults the lives, records, and writings of their Black women contemporaries. In this chapter and elsewhere, Miles makes use of the writing of figures like Harriet Jacobs, Eliza Potter, Elizabeth Keckley, Melnia Cass, and Mamie Garvin to speculate about the possible experiences of the three women in her study
Miles centers attention in Chapter 4, “Rose’s Inventory” on the tattered dress included in the sack as a way to understand the importance of this item within Ashley’s archive. Delving deeply into enslaved women’s access to clothing in a subsection titled “The Language of Dress,” Miles explores dress as a “form of social communication” and explains how dress and fabric within enslavement “signified who owned others and who could be owned” (133). Miles articulates as well that Black women’s limited control over their dress signaled their lack of access to the propriety and safety white women often enjoyed. Ultimately, Miles reads the inclusion of the dress in the sack as Rose’s “insist[ence] on Ashley’s right to bodily protection and feminine dignity” (131). This chapter would clearly be of interest to rhetorics of dress and appearance as the concerns raised here speak to the work of scholars such as Brittany Hull, Cecilia Shelton, Temptaous Mckoy, Carol Mattingly, and Jennifer Keohane.
In Chapter 5, “The Auction Block,” Miles reads the horrific separation of Rose and Ashley through the lens of the economics and spatial rhetorics of Charleston that underwrote and relied on “a set of power relations that structured human exploitation along racial lines for financial gain” (164). Miles considers how the “pseudo-militarization of the public space” structured the lives of unfree people (170), as their lived experience and mobility was determined by high-walled homes and watchtowers as well as the “punishment center” that was the Workhouse (172). Miles goes on to imagine Ashley’s experience during the slave auction, considering not only the trauma of being separated from her mother but also the probability of sexual violation that most enslaved women and girls experienced when being sold. Miles writes, “Ashley must have been gathered up in this squall of the Martin household transformation, after which her mother, Rose, was lost to her. But what can this kind of senseless, existential break have meant for a real, living child?” (183). The horror Miles writes is too much to bear; the “distance of time” is the only factor that can “operat[e] as an emotional shield” (191).
Chapter 6, “Ashley’s Seeds,” mines the importance of the pecans in Ashley’s sack. Miles describes the decision for Rose to include these food items as “what Black feminist theorists Stanlie James and Abena Busia call a ‘visionary pragmatism’” (193). The nuts that Rose packed for Ashley were not only practical in terms of feeding her, but they were also a symbol of Rose’s hope in Ashley’s health and growth. Chapter 6 also makes clear the significance of pecans within southern Black culture and foodways, seeing this as an opportunity to consider Black people’s access to foods like pecans and the cooking culture they crafted for themselves. Miles ends Chapter 6 with two kinds of feminist rhetorical practices. First, through critical imagination, she offers a picture of what the pecans might have signaled for Ashley: ”The loose, oblong nuts felt smooth in Ashley’s palms, the sound of their jangle in the sack a soothing and muted music. . . reminding her that she was loved despite being cast off, her own and every enslaved child’s private apocalypse” (216). Second Miles provides several pecan-central recipes that enslaved people would have made, such as pecan pie, pecan crisp cookies, pecan wafers, and nut butter balls. With these recipes, Miles offers an alternative way to experience history, readers can not only read history, but they can taste it.
Important to note as well that within this chapter is an insert of Miles’ collaborative visual essay with Michelle May-Curry titled “Carrying Capacity.” This essay situates Ashley’s sack within the fiber arts and textile tradition by making connections to Black women’s artistry evidenced in other seed sacks, quilts, dresses, and hair art. The authors remind readers that, as a textile, Ashley’s sack is yet another example of the ways Black people have used the fiber arts to stitch together themes of family and ancestral ritual” (n.p.).
The final major chapter “The Bright Unspooling” re-emphasizes the difficulty of tracking the descendants of enslaved people as Miles attempts to find throughline from Ashley’s separation from Rose in 1850s Charleston to her granddaughter Ruth and the embroidered message she left on the sack. Miles locates Ruth in Philadelphia in the 1920s as her archival trace emerges in sources such as the social pages of the Philadelphia Tribune. Miles uses these artifacts to flesh out an understanding of Ruth’s experience and especially focuses on Ruth’s ability and choice to embroider her family’s story on the sack. Ruth’s embroidery indicates her craft, of course, but Miles argues it also suggests an assertion of middle-class “respectability for Black families” (251) and an “eloquent rebuttal” (253) against the prejudice that Black women experienced in 1920s America. Miles’ focus turns towards the storytelling function of Ruth’s embroidery, and Miles surmises that storytelling “may have become a way for Ashley, as well as Ruth, to move beyond the constraining role of a victim and take up the empowering stance of a witness” (231). Miles continues, “To tell the story of one’s own life is to change that life, as telling is an action that can revise one’s relationship to the past” (231).
All That She Carried concludes with a reflection on Miles’ historiographic practice titled “A Little Sack of Something: An Essay on Process.” Here, Miles returns to the research questions that propelled the book forward: “what is the story of this cloth? Who were the mothers and daughters that touched it? What compelled Black women to struggle in defense of life in a system that turned mere existence into hardship? How did they maintain their will across generations in bleak times? And what can Black women’s creative response to the worst of circumstances teach us about the past and offer us for the future?” (299). Feminist historiographers will find great value in the research narrative Miles offers that ranges from learning about the sack for the first time—when she “lost [her]self in their waves of grief and oceans of meaning” (295)—to the advice she received from other scholars, and from the theories that enabled her to read the sack in difference ways to the serendipitous events that shaped her research.
We hope this review conveys how much feminist scholars of rhetoric can learn from Miles’ complex, provocative, and moving book. On so many levels, All That She Carried can enrich the conversations we find central to our field. We want to conclude by underscoring the pedagogical value of and possibilities for this text, as we encourage readers to consider bringing this text into their classes. There is no doubt that All That She Carried resonated powerfully with our students. In projects that built from Miles’ book, they took the opportunity to further research Black women’s experiences, explore their own families’ stories of loss and survival, pursue questions of archival complexity, and enact their own unique forms of archival engagement. All That She Carried can thus be just as important for our scholarship as it is for our teaching.
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