A Black Feminist Approach to History

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ashley’s sack frames the telling of a history. This book is the antidote for the white upper class worldview presented in books like Gone With the Wind. This is the view from the perspective of the enslaved. An important note: the view isn’t of only the hardships but also of the triumphs, the ways a people treated as things managed to remember and assert their humanity. That was most vivid to me when Miles contrasted the stark businesslike records of selling people with the warm record of the contents of the sack.

Where there are records, Miles combs through them. It seems like drudgery to me to sift through all the bills of sale, wills, and census records till she found a Rose and an Ashley who spent time under the same owner, though on different pieces of property. But the reward came when the pair were found. Other research seems more interesting to do: the social meaning of hair to Victorian English society and to some African societies, the clothing codes for separating the elite from the enslaved–and the transgressions of that code.

Miles keeps readers aware of the degrees of certainty/uncertainty as she fills in gaps. (And gaps there are, for records are sparse.) Sometimes parallel stories convey what might have been Ruth’s, Ashley’s, or Rose’s experiences. Sometimes data is more probable. As an English major trained in the days of close reading, I really appreciated the analysis of the wording of the inscription on the sack by Ruth. And in the spirit of that method, whether or not Ruth meant to achieve any of the effects observed doesn’t matter, so long as the effects are in the text.

It is refreshing to read a history that is not a tale of military heroes and their conquests, but of people and their daily lives, trials and triumphs. All unified by a gift from mother to daughter, Ashley’s sack.

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1 Comment

Filed under books, contemporary issues, feminism

One response to “A Black Feminist Approach to History

  1. Indeed, it is good to find a history that isn’t about military conquests. Thanks for the review.

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