All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
A renowned historian traces the life of a single object handed down through three generations of Black women to craft an extraordinary testament to people who are left out of the archives.
In a display case in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture sits a rough cotton bag, called Ashley’s Sack, embroidered with just a handful of words that evoke a sweeping family story of loss and of love, passed down through generations.
In 1850s South Carolina, an enslaved woman named Rose gave this sack filled with a few precious items to her daughter, Ashley, as a token of love and to try to ensure Ashley’s survival as well. Soon after, the nine-year-old girl was separated from her mother and sold. Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered this family history on the bag in spare yet haunting language—including Rose’s wish that “It be filled with my Love always.” Now, in this illuminating, deeply moving new book inspired by Rose’s gift to Ashley, historian Tiya Miles carefully unearths these women’s faint presence in archival records and draws on objects and art, to follow the paths of their lives—and the lives of so many women like them—in a singular and revelatory history of the experience of slavery, and the uncertain freedom afterward, in the United States.
All That She Carried is a poignant story of resilience and of love passed down through generations of women against steep odds. It honors the creativity and fierce resourcefulness of people who preserved family ties even when official systems refused to do so, and it serves as a visionary illustration of how to reconstruct and recount their stories today.
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