This book definitely belongs in the genre of American history, but it’s written in a somewhat different way because sometimes the specific subject determines the method to be used.
All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
By Tiya Miles
2021 / 387 pages
Rating: 10 / Black biography
(both read and listened)
All That She Carried is the story of three Black women who were mainly illiterate and mostly slaves. For the most part they lived in Charleston, South Carolina until they moved (or were moved) away. The eldest was Rose who gave her 9-year old daughter, Ashley, a plain sack when she was moved to another plantation. In the sack were a tattered dress, some pecans, a braid of hair and love. Ashley was Ruth’s grandmother and Ruth embroidered that history on the bag. This is women’s history, documented, and from the heart.
Writing the biographies or histories of people who were not famous (so other people would write them) or even literate (to write their own letters and diaries and memoirs) has always been very, very problematical. Tiya Miles shows it can not only be done, but done to the highest standards.
All That She Carried is about a lot of things, but it focuses on a cloth sack given, in the mid-19th century, to a young slave girl by her mother as a going-away present. The child had been sold to a plantation far away.
A generation later the slave girl’s granddaughter embroidered the names of the prior owners on the sack. Then the sack was lost for awhile but a white woman spotted and bought it at a swap meet. She then did a bit of research and got it to where it could be researched and kept properly (not via eBay). The sack turned out to be a valuable artifact with documentation embroidered right on it. From where else do we get our history?
Tiya Miles, the author of All That She Carried, has a PhD in history and she now teaches at Harvard. She’s written and published five other books. I’ll take that to mean she’s a qualified historian. She knows how to do the research and how to present it – how to document it. It shows all over the place in this book, from the Introduction and the Notes to the Essay on Process and a Note on Terms. It’s all here.
Yes, Miles does wax poetic and metaphorical, but when she stretches to capture the feelings she makes sure she’s not neglecting the verifiable details. She sometimes goes a bit over my own line of objective reporting and analysis, as is sometimes necessary. But sometimes there’s a limit in that direction, too.
Although I had my qualms at first and sometimes throughout the book, I ended up I enthralled and I might have to read it again.
From page 17 (Introduction):
“Because archives do not faithfully reveal or honor the enslaved, tending this intimacy with the dead necessitates new methods, including a trans-temporal consciousness and use of restrained imagination.”
And from page 20 (Introduction):
“You can sense by now that this is not a traditional history. It leans toward evocation rather than argumentation and is rather more meditation than monograph.”
The history is amplified by a closer look at some of the details like the reasons the pecans might have been in that sack and we even get recipes for South Carolina pecan pie. And there’s the background on quilts, slave economics, rice growing, sack making and so on.
But it’s a woman’s history – how else to do it with women who are not the wives of presidents and/or very literate? (I am not faulting anyone – history of the common people, social history, wasn’t even thought about until the 20th century with the Annales and Melbourne schools.
Some of my annoyance may have come from the narrator’s voice which is too soft and whispery. It makes the whole book seem to be an argument appealing to the emotions alone. Miles says it herself “read in a certain mood, Ruth’s verse on the bag can feel more like poetry than reportage.” –
She argues that this kind of writing off-sets the virulent hatred and anonymity of the Deep South. Ya think? I don’t know. She’s trying really hard to make a motif of “love” fit in. But that’s a detail and the whole is way outshines that detail. Bottom line is that I loved it- lol.