All That She Carried by Tiya Miles

I finished! All That She Carried by Tiya Miles was one of the books I planned to finish while wintering, and during yesterday’s ice storm I did. I hadn’t planned to finish for Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, but it seems fitting that I did.

All That She Carried begins with the discovery of an old cotton sack given to a nine-year-old girl being sold into slavery. The simple item was a gift from her mother, who filled the sack with a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, a braid of her own hair, ‘And it be filled with all my Love always.’ The little girl was sold in 1852 for $300; the mother, Rose, never saw her daughter Ashley again. We know this history because in 1921, Ashley’s granddaughter embroidered it on the sack that survived Ashley’s years of enslavement, the Civil War, and the Great Migration.

But Miles unfolds more than the simple history of this artifact. She takes each item in the sack, places it in front of the reader, and in fascinating detail points out its real, as well as spiritual and symbolic importance. She explains what Rose was imparting to her daughter through those items, and the history and connection to family and culture that Ashley would glean from them.

Even something as mundane as a pecan is more than a nut. In the notes at the end of the book, Miles mentions that during her research a garden writer, Ruah Donnelly, asked her if Rose gave the pecans as food or as seeds – two completely different purposes. And the propagation of pecan trees is intertwined with the history of Indigenous Peoples and the enslavement of Black Americans.

The strength of Black women is a theme throughout the book, beginning with how these mothers had to witness the sale and treatment of their flesh and blood, (especially their daughters), until the 1930s and 1940s when their descendents were leaders in the Black communities in the North and the South. Miles uses Harriet Jacobs’ book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, as one of her resources. I read that book last year, and it was interesting to be familiar with that work while reading this one. Miles adds to Jacobs’ experience with similar incidents, and in some cases frames the narrative in a broader history that adds depth, always connecting to the emotional and psychological impact on the women.

And there’s so much more – the importance of textiles, how to read and discern history not only from written records but also from what is missing . . . The book was last year’s National Book Award winner, and rightly so.

All That She Carried was my Rowdy Readers December selection, but I didn’t finish it before our meeting last month. I’m glad I didn’t rush through it just to be finished. The book is packed with well-researched history, but is beautifully written and reads like a novel.

Last year I posted for Black History Month that I was searching for a greater understanding of the oral history passed down through the generations of Black families. I found that understanding in Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried.

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