Life

Understanding the Horror of Slavery Is Impossible. But a Simple Cotton Sack Can Bring Us Closer.

For historian Tiya Miles, “Ashley’s Sack” contains far more than what it once carried.

Ashley’s sack.
Ashley’s sack. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy Middleton Place via Shameran81/Wikimedia.

Perhaps you saw this object on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History in the past few years—if you did, you won’t have forgotten it. It’s a cotton sack, much mended, with a hundred-year-old stitched notation: “ ‘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/ 1921.”

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This object, known as “Ashley’s Sack,” is the subject of historian Tiya Miles’ new book, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. All That She Carried is a master class in the use of context in historical writing. Stymied by a lack of records, Miles thinks around the sack from every available angle: enslaved women’s relationships to their clothes, the meaning of hair in the 19th century, what we know about enslaved children’s reactions to separation, how Ashley might have gotten her name (an unusual one, for an enslaved girl), the natural history of pecan trees in the South. Through her interpretation, the humble things in the sack take on ever-greater meaning, its very survival seems magical, and Rose’s gift starts to feel momentous in scale.

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I asked Miles to talk a bit more about her process. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: I first read about Ashley’s sack in Heather Williams’ book about slavery and family separation. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more uniquely powerful object in all of the history of American slavery—maybe in all of American history. You write in an essay on method at the end of this book that you first saw the sack on a screen, in a digital image, and it affected you in a similar way. How do you explain this power? Emotional connection can’t begin to describe it.

Tiya Miles: The power of this object seems to emanate from it, whether a person is seeing it from a distance, on the page of a book or on a screen, or up close and personal in a museum exhibit. And I think the power is anchored in the materiality of it, the fact that it’s a concrete and tangible item, and then the emotionality of what’s expressed on the surface of the sack, through the embroidered story. So the experience of engagement for the viewer or reader is a double or triple whammy—there are all these different modes of connection with the thing itself.

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The way I tried to convey this in the book was, you take a few steps back from the sack to talk about that space of emotion, that experience of feeling the kinds of things that we do often want to sidestep in historical investigation. I think that to have avoided emotionality in the research and interpretation of the sack would have been to set aside an important aspect of the meaning of the sack, to the women who packed it and gifted it and carried it, and also potentially for us today.

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This was somewhat of a struggle for me as a scholar, because so many of us are trained to try to adopt an objective stance in relationship to our sources. And though of course I have attempted to work within the accepted and proven methodological parameters of my discipline, I had to really make space for myself to relate to this object in a different way, and also to write about that mode of relating in the book—to be transparent about it, to expose it, and to encourage readers, people who have seen the sack in person or who will see an exhibit with it in the future, to be open to the feelings. That’s where so much of the power lies, so much of the usefulness for us today.

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What were the things that you were able to find out about this object, and what things remain a mystery?

When I started the project, I hoped and expected I’d be able to identify the women who are named on the sack, to understand something more about their relationships, and to really trace them through time. And also to be able to trace more about the origins of the sack itself—to identify where it had been produced, and by whom. And with what specific materials.

I was very quickly disappointed to realize that records about all these things—the women, their relationship, their history, where they were from, the manufacture of the sack—were either nonexistent or had not been saved. And so what I thought was a project headed straight toward historical investigation turned into something else entirely. It turned into a deeply exploratory and experimental project. … I had to confront the paucity of sources and recognize that the book was going to be very different than what I had at first imagined, and recognize that this deficit could be a benefit for the project.

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Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman, told us in her writing that we could not know what slavery was. We just do not have that capacity. She said this to her white, free Northern women readers back in the 19th century—but we, too, due to our moment in time and place, can’t know.

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And so we are in this place of not knowing, which is difficult for the scholar. But I think in the end, without this information, I was pushed to narrate the history of these women and their sack differently, and I hope that this will bring the readers a bit closer to the experience. These women had to stretch, bend, experiment, and innovate just to stay alive, to maintain their ties to one another, to their daughters, their sons; they had to innovate to tell their stories. And it has been an incredible gift and a learning experience for me to do something like the same in the research and writing of this book.

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I loved your section on the pecans—I never know how to say it, but “pee-cahn” is what sounds right to me!—the “three handfulls” that Ruth reports Rose put into Ashley’s sack. You get into natural history, and botany, and write that you went so far as to plant a pecan tree, to observe its unfurling, to understand the objects in the sack from a bunch of different angles.

For that part of the story, all we have is the notation: “three handfulls of pecans.” That’s it! So what do we do with that? If we want to try to understand what pecans meant to Rose, and how she may have gotten ahold of them, what they could have meant to Ashley, and how they might have not only sustained her but symbolized her relationship to her mother, a relationship to Black culture, and so on … it was difficult to figure out how to access that when the record has only three words!

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So the move I made was to try to get closer to the thing itself in the present day. So, of course, I have my pecan sapling. It’s still growing! It’s wonderful. I love it.

Oh, good, I was afraid to ask!

Yes, it’s going! I wanted to see what would happen if Ashley had chosen to—if she was able to—plant a pecan tree. And if she tried to grow it, what would it have looked like? My sapling is not the same as Ashley’s, if she ever had one, but being able to see the new leaves on a pecan sapling, to think about what kind of life that could have signified for Ashley—the kind of life that is embodied by a growing plant, the kind of life that is encapsulated in a source of food—that helped me think about telling that part of the story.

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I also ate more pecans! I wanted to, through my own senses, connect to what was in the sack. For breakfast today, I had rice cakes with pecan butter and peanut butter. And you’ll see that in the book, I actually include pecan recipes. This is the kind of experimental, exploratory chain of thinking that unfolded: going from the stitched notation on the sack, to trying to grow a little sapling, to eating more pecans, to talking with you today about how pecan is pronounced.

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I want to ask about the political impact of feelings. I was interested to find out that Ashley’s sack was rediscovered at a flea market in 2007 by a white woman, who recognized its value and sold it to Middleton Place for very little money; you say she might have quasi-donated this object because she had a dream about the sack, and had a daughter, and must have seen something in the story that moved her. Curators you interviewed who had seen the sack on display reported people weeping so much when seeing it that they needed to hand out Kleenex.

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For myself, a white woman, I was very interested in the history of slavery before I had a child, but since I’ve become a mother my interest has sharpened, through some kind of feeling of empathy or maybe projection. Now I can barely think about this history without thinking about the situations mothers found themselves in. My maternal fellow feeling is intense, but is it useful? Does it have political force? Or is it self-indulgent, in some way, for audiences to consume this kind of story of Black trauma—maybe especially white audiences?

Let me go first to the question of maternal empathy, and how I think it might be functioning in the book and with regard to the sack. I’m a mother, and my experience as a mother has most definitely and profoundly affected and shaped my experience as a researcher who works on the period of slavery, and on enslaved women, both Black and Indigenous.

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Ashley’s sack was exhibited in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was displayed in front of a wall that had many little notations from records about sales and family separations. There was one particular inscription that I remember being just stunned by, because it was about a boy who was 7 years old who was sold. It had his price. I think it was $300, but I don’t precisely remember right now what that number was. I may have purposely put that out of my mind because my son was around this age when I saw this notation on the wall. It felt like a gut punch to me. It was a kind of a time warp. All of a sudden I could imagine the vulnerability of my beautiful son, my own child, to this kind of horrific possibility. It was so visceral; I felt for a moment dropped out of time.

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I felt that many times when writing this book. Many times, working on this book, especially on the section about children and their experiences, I had to remind myself: This is a different time. Your children are safe. We’re OK—in comparison with the status of Rose and Ashley.

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But that kind of electric feeling of connection isn’t really an end goal of this kind of work. I certainly would not want people to become so lost in the horrors of this time period that the book is attempting to interpret that we forget that change is possible. The powerful emotions that we can feel, and that undertow of horror that can pull us under—they are real, they are true to the history of the experience, but we need pull ourselves back up again and look around in this moment and this time, and think about how we can apply the lessons of the past …

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Regarding your question about white audiences and their emotions: This is a tricky subject right now, and it comes up in so many of the discussions of anti-racism and cross-racial interaction. I tried to be careful with this in the book. I don’t want the book to exacerbate divisions; I want the book to actually bring people who may have very different political views together, around the story of this object and the women who cared for it and passed it down.

Many people cry when interacting with this object, this story. These are gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching stories. These things happened, and our ancestors—some of them—lived through these atrocious things, and if it weren’t for their persistence and survival, many of us wouldn’t be here. When people who don’t share that ancestral past engage with these materials and also feel an empathetic, emotional reaction, when they recognize, “This is horrible. How could individuals, how could municipalities, how could states, how could the federal government be complicit in this brutality?”—I think that’s a good thing.

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But that doesn’t mean that anyone should think we know what it felt like, or think, We had a good cry, and now let’s move on. I hope we would redouble our efforts to understand the threat that has been posed in the past, the threat that’s being posed in our present, to recognition of people’s humanity, to democracy. And, instead of resting with those tears, turn them into action.

I don’t think perpetually turning inward is at all productive. Think of how, if Rose had only turned inward at this terrible moment in her life—I don’t think, if she had, she would have packed the sack and given it to Ashley. Perhaps Ashley wouldn’t have survived. And we definitely wouldn’t have the story about what Rose did. She turned outward; she thought, I need to act. And that’s what we need to do.

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