In One Modest Cotton Sack, a Remarkable Story of Slavery, Suffering, Love and Survival

As a historian, Tiya Miles is well aware of the professional obligation to proceed with caution, to keep her own expectations from getting ahead of the material at hand.

But as someone who studies the history of African Americans, Native Americans and women, she has also been forced to confront what she calls “the conundrum of the archives” — the way that written records have favored those who had the means (the training, the status, the money) to document their lives.

Such archives tend to skew toward power, which is to say white and male, making them especially fraught guides to the history of the antebellum South. “It is a madness, if not an irony, that unlocking the history of unfree people depends on the materials of their legal owners,” Miles writes in “All That She Carried,” a new book about women and chattel slavery as framed by a single object: a cotton sack that dates back to the mid-19th century, given by an enslaved woman named Rose to her daughter Ashley.

Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered the sack with an inscription that announces its provenance:

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
Ruth Middleton

From 2016 until earlier this year, the artifact now known as Ashley’s sack had been on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; it was on loan from Middleton Place in South Carolina, where so many viewers started weeping when they saw it that curators handed out tissues beside its display.

Little about the sack is definitively known. It had turned up at a flea market in Nashville in 2007, where a customer found it in a bin amid old fabric scraps. Miles tries to learn and reconstruct what she can, taking care to respect the silences in the historical record while also refusing to abandon Ashley and Rose to “that discursive abyss.”

“All That She Carried” is a remarkable book, striking a delicate balance between two seemingly incommensurate approaches: Miles’s fidelity to her archival material, as she coaxes out facts grounded in the evidence; and her conjectures about this singular object, as she uses what is known about other enslaved women’s lives to suppose what could have been. “This is not a traditional history,” Miles writes in her introduction. “It leans toward evocation rather than argumentation, and is rather more meditation than monograph.”

Still, it contains a good deal of historical sleuthing, as Miles details the search for Rose and Ashley, corroborating pioneering archival work done by the cultural anthropologist Mark Auslander. Rose was an exceedingly common name; Ashley, at least for a girl, was not. A Rose without an Ashley was unlikely to be the Rose that Miles was looking for.

There was one record that turned up both names in an inventory of an estate belonging to Robert Martin of South Carolina shortly after he died in 1852. The death of an enslaver was often a moment of unpredictability and consequent terror for those people he claimed as his property; this was when his estate was most likely to be liquidated or sold off in parts, and children separated from their parents.

Miles, a professor at Harvard and the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, cross-references her sources, explaining that the odds that we have found the right Rose are “surer but not absolute.” She then looks into the sack itself, using the items that Rose gave to Ashley to unspool several narrative threads. She draws a connection from the sack to the expanding cotton trade; the lucrative mass crop, Miles says, made for an even more brutal and squalid kind of slavery than the established system of rice cultivation on South Carolina’s marshy coast. The “tattered dress” allows her to dilate on how the slave system’s reach extended to state laws codifying the kinds of material that enslaved people were permitted to wear.

Considering the “3 handfulls of pecans,” Miles writes about food and nutrition; pecans would have been a delicacy in Charleston at the time, prompting her to wonder whether Rose may have been a cook. And the braid provides Miles with a chance to write about hair and what it meant — shorn to punish enslaved women, it was also laden with symbolism, a tie between loved ones separated by distance or death.

The trauma of separation — of Ashley from Rose, of daughters from their mothers, of children from their parents — emerges as a central theme of the book, as Miles tries to imagine herself into the lives of the women she writes about. “We must presume that Rose always knew that she would birth a motherless child,” Miles writes. Much sentimentalism has attached itself to Ashley’s sack and the poetry of Ruth’s embroidered inscription, but the sack was originally an emergency kit, born out of despairing necessity. In slavery, Miles writes, mother love would get entangled in matters of survival, and violent discipline was sometimes seen as a form of rescue: “One formerly enslaved woman painfully recalled how her mother beat her in the same sadistic way that her mother had been abused by whites. ‘She would make me thank her for whipping me.’”

Miles traces the lineage as far as she can, up through Ruth Middleton and her daughter, Dorothy, who died in 1988, leaving no heirs. What’s exceptional about Ashley’s sack is that something so intimate was preserved in this way — pressed by a mother into her child’s hands and passed on, so that a descendant who had heard the oral history firsthand could one day decide to inscribe it onto the object itself. The result, as Miles shows, is a fragile object that contains so much, marking “a spot in our national story where great wrongs were committed, deep sufferings were felt, love was sustained against all odds and a vision of survival for future generations persisted.”

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