An Interview with Tiya Miles
Unraveling the secrets of "Ashley's sack," a material record of the history of slavery
In the winter of 2016, the historian Tiya Miles came across an object known as “Ashley’s sack” for the first time. Made of 19th-century cotton, Ashley’s sack is a pillowcase-sized bag with an extraordinary message stitched into its faded fabric:
My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls 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
It is signed, simply, “Ruth Middleton 1921.” As Miles writes in her powerful new book, All That She Carried, her encounter with Ashley’s sack “changed everything.” “I had been studying Black history for over twenty years,” she writes, in an essay about process at the conclusion of the book. “I had visited African American museums, stared unbelievingly at leg chains and neck irons, but no remnant from those dark times had arrested my spirit quite like this one.”
In the wake of that transformative experience, Miles set out to “uncover the meanings of the cloth,” not only by discovering and describing the individual stories of the women whose names adorn the sack, but also by illuminating the historical, environmental, and societal contexts in which they lived and in which the sack was made and filled, carried and saved, embroidered and preserved.
In this interview, Miles speaks about the research and writing of All That She Carried, which is now a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Kiley Bense: In a recent interview with Slate, you talked about how the lack of archival evidence about the individual women who are memorialized on the sack turned the book into what you called an “exploratory and experimental project.” I was fascinated by the unique, associative structure of the book, and I wondered about how the research process and the structure affected one another. How did they work with and against each other?
Tiya Miles: The research process started very close up to the information presented on the sack itself. I wanted to look initially and primarily into the factual information (or seemingly factual information) presented on the sack. That is: the women who were named, the place that was named, the date on the sack, the items on the sack. Originally, I had a structure for the book, which I quite loved, which was based on a proximal approach, where it was coming in as closely as possible to what was being, let's say, “reported” on the sack. That structure was one in which each item on the sack had its own chapter. I loved that structure because I thought that it helped me to think about and focus on the materiality, and it felt like it was representative of fealty to Rose’s own thinking.
I worked with that structure for quite a while, probably for two drafts. I ended up shifting to a different kind of structure because I felt that approaching this book in terms of an emphasis on the things, while really interesting, was too limiting. I found that having one chapter on pecans alone didn't allow me to think in these associative ways about all kinds of things that could be related to pecans, and were related, but wouldn't flow directly from a chapter that was just on pecans. So the structure changed as I wrote, and as I asked the questions. I ended up tucking what initially had been conceived as whole chapters on something like pecans or something like a braid of hair into chapters that I enlarged to incorporate roomier concepts. The hair became a deep dive in the bigger chapter on packing, for example.
KB: I was struck by the way that you leaped beyond what’s described on the sack—and the dearth of archival evidence about this one family—by bringing in so many other women’s stories. You also draw on imagination, and you write about the importance of imagination for historians and particularly for historians who are writing about and researching the lives of women of color. Could you talk about how your own imaginative and speculative tendencies shaped the book?
TM: Part of the impetus to try to think imaginatively and to try to write imaginatively comes out of my own scholarly training and background, as your question indicates. I have always been an interdisciplinary trained scholar. My first degree is in Afro-American Studies, my second degree is in women's studies, and my third degree is in American Studies. I have always had a wide-open and broad sense of the kinds of questions I might want to ask, the kinds of sources I might look to, and the kinds of analytical tools I might turn to. I'm someone who was already primed and positioned to be able to pivot quickly.
I think that orientation—my previous training, including my love of literature, and my interdisciplinary interests—was helpful in terms of trying to do justice to a project like this. Besides that orientation, I also had the sack itself, which is a beautiful and multivariant kind of thing. There's so many different facets and aspects of the sack that can be drawn out into various directions.
I tried my best to do this in the book. I'm 100 percent sure that I did not follow every thread that could be explored, because there's just so much to contend with and to think about, but the richness of the sack compelled imagination; it was always there in the central source. In All That She Carried, I talked about how the inscription on the sack reads like so many different kinds of text. It reads like a report. It reads like an inventory. It also reads like a narrative, a chronicle of events. It reads like a poem. And it reads like an implicit set of instructions from an elder woman in a family to younger women in a family. It even reads like a recipe. Those words lent themselves to imaginative thinking.
This is something that I quite appreciate about the experience of doing this project, on this end of it. On the front end of it, it was really quite intimidating to think about. How on earth can I tell this story? When I know that I have to tell it, because it's so beautiful, and it's so compelling, but how on earth do I tell it when it turns out that the documentary evidence is so scanty? That felt like a wall at the beginning of the project. And then, at some point, the wall seemed to open, and on the other side of it, it was like a garden of exploration and experimentation. I would have never found the garden if it hadn't been for the wall.
My previous books are all experimental in some way, sometimes in terms of subject matter, trying to ask questions of previously used sources. But they were not like this. With this project, there just was not that kind of sourcing. I really do think that scarcity and challenge lead to creativity, and I think that's what we see in Rose’s example. In bringing that up, I'm not trying in any way to suggest some kind of equivalency between me and Rose, or our time and her time. But I am saying that coming up against obstacles compels imagination.
KB: I really like this metaphor for research, of the wall and the garden, this idea that you wouldn't find the garden or you wouldn’t appreciate the garden for what it was if you didn't have to scale the wall to get there. Was there a moment when you first started to glimpse the “garden,” and you became more encouraged? When you realized that the research wall was surmountable?
TM: We can keep going with our metaphor: it was all about Rose. It was the moment when I realized that even though I could not pin down with 100 percent certainty who this Rose was, the Rose whose name was written in the sack, who she was in place and in time, I could see in the written material, in the archive, a number of enslaved women who carried the name of Rose. All of a sudden, what had felt like a hole and a lack transformed into plenty. It transformed into a multitude of women whose lives I might be able to consider. It was that moment when I thought: there were so many enslaved Roses. I realized that their stories are critical to the telling of the story of this one Rose, whose descendent remembered her on the sack. All of a sudden, the project took on so many different dimensions. It felt like a real breakthrough.
KB: It seems like such a powerful revelation to have, where you’re looking into the past, and you're straining to hear one particular voice, and you're not sure if you can hear it or not. But you realize that there's this chorus of other voices that you can hear.
TM: It is a chorus; it really is. When we think of it that way, we can see how the individual voices of that chorus blend and corroborate one another. And that's one of the wonderful findings that I had in doing this work as well. The inscription on the sack, which is a passed-down memory, and not a firsthand account given to us directly from Rose, still helps to amplify and undergird and emphasize stories of the experience of enslavement that we already had from other Black women.
KB: It’s adding another voice to the chorus.
TM: That’s right; it's added another voice, and this voice is an illuminating voice. I experienced the project as one that enlarged into a choral form when I was writing the chapter on Rose, and it started with an archival dive. This is not a project that is attempting to say, or that wants to say, “let's just throw away the archives.” No, it was being deep inside the South Carolina slave records, where I saw all of those Roses and started to feel a sense of the deep meaning of that. It was a choral project in that moment. But Rose and her descendants were still the soloists. They were the ones who had their own moment, obviously, as I was trying to tell the story.
KB: It's a really beautiful way to think about archival work, particularly when you're confronting archives that are not just biased, but brutally biased, and trying to figure out how to unearth personal voices and stories from records like that.
TM: That’s a great phrase, “brutally biased.” And I want to add something to my response to your question about imagination: This is a conversation that has been going on in the study of Black women's history and Black feminist theory, the study of Black women and gender and enslavement, for a long time. The question of what do we do with these “brutally biased” archives, to borrow your language, is one that scholars of Black women's history have had to contend with, and those deliberations have necessarily pointed us to creative orientations. When I pick this up, I am also part of a chorus, part of a chorus of scholars who've been asking: how do we tell these stories?
KB: In one part of the book you quoted another scholar who writes about how we can make the past come alive by making connections to the present. You also write about the concept of “incapacitating uncertainty,” which you use to tie the experiences of the women you're writing about in the 19th century and the early 20th century to the turmoil of our own time. How else has what's going on now influenced your work and this book? Why was it important to you to bring in current events?
TM: Your question brings together ideas from two different scholars whose work I cite or refer to in the book. One is Saidiya Hartman, and it's her notion of the ways in which the history of slavery echoes today that shrinks those two timeframes together that I'm working with, and also a notion that is repeated in Black feminist thought writ large. The uncertainty comment comes from Drew Gilpin Faust’s work on emotion and loss and grieving in the Civil War.
I took that idea of uncertainty as a state of being during the Civil War period that Faust is talking about, and I applied it to Black women's experiences of enslavement. I think that it does fit and it does apply, because this was the underlying condition of their lives: not having control, not knowing, always fearing.
In terms of the experience of writing about the connection between past and present, part of that approach does come from these Black feminist theorizations about histories and legacies of slavery, and the imprint of slavery on experiences today. Part of it comes from my own identity as a public historian and the mandate of the National Endowment for the Humanities public scholars award.
Through my whole career, I have always felt, and I feel even more strongly now, in this historical moment that we are living through, that our engagement with the past, and our studies of the past, must be usable for us in the present. It's wonderful to study history for the sake of understanding what took place back then. There's a value to that and there's a deep satisfaction in that. But I think we also study history because we want to try to pull back the curtain on the experiences that are attached to human life, in as broad a way as we can. In other words, we're trying to understand our species.
We haven't changed so much, right? We haven't changed so much over the centuries, over the millennia. We're still working with the same basic biological and psychological apparatus that our ancestors worked with. We can learn something about how it is that we think and how we function and what we do under states of emergency and duress by studying the past.
While I was working on this book, we encountered a compounding sense of trouble, threats, and emergency. From my personal political perspective, a large part of that was the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. And always behind this project was the question of ecological vulnerability, climate change, species loss, extreme weather, and the effects of all of those on the most vulnerable of our co-inhabitants of earth.
Toward the end of the project, the COVID-19 pandemic was upon us. I had intended to do one final research trip to South Carolina that very spring, and then COVID hit and I couldn't travel. I had to shift, as did (probably) everyone engaged in archival research that required travel at that time. Having to factor in and contend with uncertainty in our present-day moment helped me to see Rose’s experience and Ashley’s experience a little more clearly and to recognize the echoes, athough the problems that we're facing are not the same as theirs.
I think there are themes in common between being an unfree Black woman in the 1850s, facing God knows what, with very few resources, and with all of us right now, living in the 2020s, facing God knows what. We have no idea what's coming next, or what we will need to face the next great challenges.
KB: This is such an interesting way of thinking about the story of the sack. What are the “usable” things that we can take with us from reading and learning about Rose and Ashley? How can we apply those lessons to the “incapacitating uncertainty” we face now? It strikes me that the story of Ashley’s sack is partly a story about how to claim agency in the face of “incapacitating uncertainty.”
TM: Yes. Ultimately, it’s a story about hope and action. One of the ideas that I tried to emphasize in the book, and I hope it comes through, is that Rose acted. She did something, even though she had so little power. Even though (and I speculate) she may have thought that what she was doing could only make a small difference. She didn't let the uncertainty, the unknowing, the trepidation, the constraints, stop her from doing something, from acting to love, and to protect what she loved: her beautiful daughter. Because she acted, I read hope. I don't think that we take an action to do something if we don't think that we can make change through that action.
KB: In the book, you talked about the importance of telling stories as a way of healing and processing. You write about how telling a story about one's life changes that life, and how “telling is an action that can revise” our relationship to the past. How did working on this book and telling this particular story change your relationship to this story and your own story?
TM: It brought more centrally to mind, and to heart, my own deep reliance on the stories and actions of women in my family who have long passed on. I had always known their stories, had been told their stories, but thinking about what it is they experienced, what it is that they did, what it is they hoped for, in relation to the women in Rose’s family, brought me so much closer to them. That's something that I treasure now and will always treasure.
Telling the story also changed my sense of how to think about, where to place, and how to value emotion in historical work and historical engagement. When I first began this project, I tried to run away from the centrality of love on the sack because I thought it was so obvious. I thought that it wasn't a sophisticated enough idea to be working with as a thesis.
When I was fresh out of grad school, and I was doing my first job interviews, in my job talk, I said that I “love to document,” and I was told, “historians don't love their sources.” So I think I was avoiding writing a book about love. It didn’t feel like it was my area as a historian, as a scholar, and yet that is what this book is about. It's what the story is about. It's what our lives are about. It's the reason why we know we have to work so hard to address the problems that we're all facing. It's because we love people, right? We love our family. We love our friends, we love our ancestors, we love the children who are yet to come in the future. We love this earth and all the creatures that we share this earth with. That is our motivation, in the end. Having written the story, having contemplated the sack and its meanings, that is something that I will always carry with me. ■