Tiya Miles (The Dawn of Detroit; Ties that Bind), a professor of history at Harvard University, does a difficult task incomparably well in All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. With gentleness and historical acumen, Miles explores the history of this sack, and why it is important in larger terms as part of African American history.
In 1921, Ruth Middleton embroidered a sack that had belonged to her grandmother Ashley, listing what the sack originally contained. Her great-grandmother Rose, an enslaved woman, gave the sack to her daughter Ashley when the nine-year-old girl was sold away from her in 1850s South Carolina. Miles carefully researches the items mentioned in the embroidery: a dress, a handful of pecans, a lock of Rose's hair, "my Love always." Miles explores what these would have meant to both Ashley and Rose, and how Rose was doing her best to care for her daughter, even when the terrible system of chattel slavery attempted to thwart Rose's basic humanity.
Little is known about Rose or Ashley's early lives, but Miles has found many contemporary accounts to enlighten readers as to what may have gone on in the lives of enslaved women of that era. And she elucidates how a sack was specifically important. As Miles says, "African American things had little chance to last.... How could people who were property acquire and pass down property?" All that She Carried will transport readers to difficult times in American history, and make them think more carefully about all the physical goods they take for granted in their day-to-day lives. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.