All That She Carried
Raylene Hinz-Penner here, coming from central Kansas, North Newton east of Wichita, but I grew up east of Liberal in High Plains territory and am delighted to share in the Book Byte program. A retired college English professor, I am sharing a book that is not fiction, my normal pick, but a lyric genealogical history by notable historian, Tiya Miles, a most amazing book about an object, a sparkling masterpiece of African American women’s history published in 2021. Its title: All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.”
I have just recently downsized my house and rid myself of half my possessions, many of them antiques and flea market objects I dearly loved. My 96-year-old mother still makes me quilts that I treasure. Maybe that is why I so loved this tale of the journey of a flour sack.
So here is how this miraculous story goes: In 2007 a White woman discovered a 33x16 inch cloth feed sack-- the kind our grandmothers used for tea towels-- in a box of rags at a Tennessee open-air flea market. When she saw the embroidery, she immediately knew it was a treasure and sold it to the Middleton Place plantation outside Charleston, South Carolina. They loaned it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. The sack was embroidered with red stitches done in 1921 by a woman named Ruth Middleton. She had embroidered 10 lines I will quote for you, for they are the code for the rest of the story.
Here are the lines: “My Great Grandmother, Rose, mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age nine in South Carolina. It held a battered dress, three handfuls 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.” Tiya Miles, a prize-winning Harvard historian, decided to try to flesh out this story and the book is a documentation of her incredible research into the lives of these women separated by the obscene inhumanity of slavery. What Tiya Miles finds celebrates the humanity of its victims.
Tracing this lineage was incredibly hard and of course, inconclusive. Too often the stories of African Americans aren’t present in the archives. Their lives are traced and sometimes surmised in this story through Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration and post WWI African American society in Philadelphia, where Ruth moved in her teens. Most fascinating to me were the items in the title: All That She Carried. First, a dress, protection from the sun and cold, but also a shield, even if flimsy, against the sexual predation and assault African American girls faced.
Second, nuts, here pecans, were “survival food” packed with calories against hunger. Pecans were also a bit like coinage, for they could be traded in the South. Hair, too, held great symbolic meaning, both for African American girls and White girls.
At the heart of this story is love, “Told her it be filled with my love always.” The love of enslaved mothers for their children, the love with which enslaved women’s hands wove fabric, sewed clothing and stitched quilts. This love we know whether we are White or African American, but this story shows these women’s love and perseverance “in the face of soul-crushing madness,” as one reviewer said. Tiya Miles calls her work a meditation, in a way asking us all to pack our sack and carry that witness. Sometimes in these times of societal turmoil and upheaval, we need reminders of what is essential to survival and memory.