Winner of ΦBK’s 2022 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award
By Indira Ganesan
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 handfuls 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
These lines were embroidered by Ruth Middleton, to act as witness to the heartbreaking legacy of American slavery and to underscore the love an enslaved woman had for her daughter. As Rose feared, her child was taken with only a few moments notice to be sold. She had to act quickly, and the small sack was packed in haste to provide her child with some sustenance for her journey, a memory of her mother to hold on to, some small possession of her own. I write these words with anger, with despair, with pain at what is a part of our shared history. The story of American slavery, like the story of the Holocaust or any genocide practiced on a people, is one that needs to be remembered, evoked, studied, and taught so that we know not just the capacity humans have for cruelty, but the terrible cost. How did we as a society ever allow such an atrocity, and how dare we forget?
Tiya Miles, a Harvard professor of history, MacArthur grantee, author of five other books, takes on the search for Ashley’s sack, following a timeline of years from first hearing about it and tracking it down, unpacking its meaning against a constellation of stories and artifacts. She becomes a sleuth, following trails which lead to larger stories, all the while tracking her own process. It is a fascinating read, chronicling love—mother love, and familial love.
Yet this book, which you must read, and pass on, is also a story of survival under such inhumane circumstances, of a keepsake that becomes a communion. The sack is a testament to Rose’s love for Ashley, a measure of hope, and this book is a testament, part carefully researched from crumbs of evidence and written records (the price put on her by Ashley’s original owner, Robert Martin, was $300) and a conjuring of motivation. Toni Morrison has written eloquently of a woman who attempted to murder all of her children (and succeeds in killing the youngest) rather than let slave-capturers take them, and here, Miles imagines what prompted Rose to pack a sack, and place a lock of her own hair in it to give her daughter. In uncovering the story of one sack, Miles uncovers dozens of stories in elegant, unflinching prose.
The sack also offers a look at one historian’s process of examining history, when archival material is sparse, or worse, erased. “When written records leave gaps,“ Miles writes, “we can look for material traces as historians of the environment have done.” Fossils and pollen provide evidence of history, just like a tattered dress. The way clothing figures in slavery is also examined, from recounting landscape architects Frederick Law Olmstead’s insulting description of Black women he observed in 1850 on a trip, as well as feminist Harriet Martineau’s, to how boys were provided with sacks with holes cut out to slip a head through, and low-necked flimsy dresses for pre- and barely-teens so masters could easily assault them sexually. As Ashley was sold at auction, Miles documents the common practice of removing the enslaved person’s clothing in this context so that they could be examined more closely by potential buyers, suggesting another reason why having some spare clothing in her sack might have been important to Ashley. So, clothing emerges as evidence. Miles emphasizes that memory is shifty, as is interpretation, which is why we comb through written account books, and material artifacts. She thoughtfully provides seventy pages of extensive, annotative endnotes.
Contained in the book, like a treasure found in a sack, is a section called “Carrying Capacity,” a visual essay of the work of contemporary artists who use Ashley’s sack as a muse for poetry and art. We also have quilts, dresses, hair, and later in the book, recipes for pecan pie and cookies. We learn how African Americans had to forage for food, for while farming and cooking was part of the expected labor, enslavement often meant a serving of gruel was only provided for personal consumption. We learn that desperation made women glean rice grains in their pockets while winnowing in the fields, forage for roots and leaves to supplement their meagre diets. Acting as livestock, because that was what the institution of slavery required, using men and women as substitutes for beasts in the field, meant that “physical ache of hunger and psychological need for nutrition pushed the enslaved to desperate acts,“ Miles writes, explaining why food was the most common stolen item on plantations. Sour milk, stale bread, a weekly pint of buttermilk or one cup of coffee were the rations, which meant the actual horses and oxen were better fed.
Miles puts her story in context when she writes that following the story of Ashley’s sack and recovering lost histories results in the story of “Rose, a visionary; Ashley, a survivor; and Ruth, a story-teller.” “Ordinary in their time among roughly four million Americans caged by slavery,” she writes, “these women . . . are extraordinary in their production and preservation of a rare object imbued with the memory of slavery’s shadow.” By seeking to protect her daughter, Rose creates what will become an handmade heirloom, something precious for generations to hold and remember.
Read the inscription on the sack again. What do you recall? A nine-year-old. A nine-year-old being sold. Three handfuls of pecans. A dress. A lock of hair. From this, everything. Please read this book and remember our shared history. And pass it on.
Novelist Indira Ganesan was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Vassar College. Her books include The Journey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), Inheritance (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and As Sweet As Honey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).