44 pages 1 hour read

Tiya Miles

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


All That She Carried, written by Dr. Tiya Miles and published in June 2021, is a National Book Award winner and a New York Times bestseller and was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post, Time Magazine, NPR, and Publisher’s Weekly. Miles is a professor of history in African American, Indigenous, and Women’s Studies at Harvard University, and All That She Carried is her sixth book. Miles was first inspired to investigate the remarkable artifact known as Ashley’s Sack when traveling to Savannah, Georgia, to participate in a conference. When colleague Ben Goggins informed her of a textile bearing connections to enslaved women from the Charleston Lowcountry area, Miles was fascinated by its origins. She applied for a public history grant to facilitate her research process and began tracing the sack’s origins and the women central to its story, beginning with an enslaved woman who packed a precious inventory of survival items for her nine-year-old child who was to be sold away from her. All That She Carried is the story of three women, Rose, who packed the sack, Ashley, who received it from her mother, and Ruth, Ashley’s granddaughter, who embroidered the tale of her great-grandmother’s love on the sack in 1921. It is an exploration of the history of American slavery as it pertains specifically to the experiences of women and girls. This guide is based on the Random House paperback edition published on February 1, 2022.

Miles indicates in her introduction that she occasionally and purposefully uses terminology like “owner” and “slave,” often rejected in early-21st-century scholarship in favor of terms like “enslaver” and “enslaved person,” to address the brutality and gravity that these social statuses implied in the 18th and 19th centuries, and for the purpose of clarifying roles and specific events in her relation of the history. This guide favors the terms “enslaver” and “enslaved person” but occasionally mirrors Miles’s language as necessary to retain that same clarification. This guide, like the book, contains extensive discussion of the trafficking and enslavement of human beings, racism, bigotry, and violence against enslaved people, including sexual assault and abuse of young women and girls, and delves into the traumatic experiences pervasive across the experiences of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries and the racism and abuses suffered by Black people throughout American history.

Plot Summary

In 2016, Dr. Tiya Miles began her research into Ashley’s Sack, a medium-sized antique cotton tote found in a bin with other assorted textiles at a Nashville flea market in 2007. At the time that Miles began investigating its history, it was owned by the Middleton Place Foundation and exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Embroidered on Ashley’s Sack was the inventory contained therein and the story of what happened to the woman it was packed by, Rose, and the child it was packed for, Ashley, the grandmother of the sack’s embroiderer, Ruth Middleton.

All That She Carried traces Rose and Ashley to the estate of Robert Middleton, a wealthy Charleston planter whose death precipitated the liquidation of his estate and the sale of Ashley away from her mother to parts unknown. Miles follows the trail of historical records, locating Ruth Middleton and her daughter Dorothy in Philadelphia in 1921 and examining the contents of the sack and the historical contexts and cultural significances that contribute to its meaning. Through the lens of the experiences of enslaved and liberated Black women who recounted the events of their lives for historical posterity, Miles paints a portrait of the lives of these three women, members of a matrilineal line that stretches over 650 miles, through four generations, and through enslavement, emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration