Winner of the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
In 1850s South Carolina, just before nine-year-old Ashley was sold, her mother Rose gave her a sack filled with just a few things as a token of her love. Decades later, Ashley's granddaughter Ruth embroidered this history on the bag--including Rose's message that 'It be filled with my Love always.' Historian Tiya Miles carefully follows faint archival traces back to Charleston to find Rose in the kitchen where she may have packed the sack for Ashley.
... 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.
[Miles'] lyrical account presents the obscene inhumanity of slavery while celebrating the humanity of its victims ... Miles combed South Carolina plantation records to find information about Rose and Ashley, and she weaves her findings into fascinating and informative stories. Yet in the end, her research, while highly plausible, could not be conclusive. Systemic racism extends to the archives ... The result is a deeply layered and insightful book ... Where historical information is lacking, Miles effectively draws on novels and the published and unpublished memoirs of numerous African American women to imagine what the archives cannot reveal ... more than a compelling primer on African American history or an indictment of America’s moral failures. Throughout, Miles reflects on love. The love of enslaved mothers for their children. The love of the author for her grandmother. The love with which enslaved women’s hands wove fabric, sewed clothing and stitched quilts...In the hands of a gifted historian like Miles, such beloved things form an alternative archive from which to restore Black women’s past emotions and experiences ... Equal measure historical exploration, methodological experimentation and moral exhortation, Miles calls her work a 'meditation' rather than a monograph. That seems right, and while it may not be traditional history, it is certainly great history. All That She Carried is a broad and bold reflection on American history, African American resilience, and the human capacity for love and perseverance in the face of soul-crushing madness.
Miles is renowned for her ability to spin touchingly personal stories out of deeply researched material. Her latest tour de force centers on Ashley’s Sack, which is on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. From this single piece of history, Miles traces three generations of Black women from 1850’s South Carolina to the recent past, crafting her own indispensable artifact in the process.