All That She Carried Summary
All That She Carried is a 2021 nonfiction book by Tiya Miles about an embroidered sack, a family heirloom passed down through generations of Black American women.
- In South Carolina in 1852, an enslaved woman named Rose gave her daughter, Ashley, a sack containing clothes, food, a lock of hair, and the promise of her enduring love. The two were then separated, due to Ashley's being sold.
- Miles traces the story of the sack, including its embroidery by Ruth, Ashley’s granddaughter. In doing so, Miles considers the historical and social contexts of Rose, Ashley, and their descendents.
Last Updated November 3, 2023.
In South Carolina in 1852, an enslaved Black woman named Rose was faced with imminent separation from her daughter, Ashley, through sale. In a desperate effort to protect her daughter, Rose packed a sack with the following items: a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, a lock of her own hair, and a promise that the sack would “always” contain her love. The sack’s story then skips ahead to 1921, when Ruth Middleton, Ashley’s granddaughter, embroidered Rose and Ashley’s story onto the sack.
Tiya Miles, the author of All That She Carried, sets out to trace the history of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth. However, she notes that it is often difficult to piece together a full and accurate history, especially when the subjects of one’s research are enslaved Black women. The archival record typically contains little or no information about those who were too marginalized to warrant extensive documentation. However, using the sack as a guide, she intends to tell the story of these women using a blend of archival evidence, contemporary memoirs, slave narratives, and “restrained imagination.”
The search for Rose begins in South Carolina, based on the information provided by Ruth’s embroidery. South Carolina was a major economic and social hub during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its plantation culture relied almost entirely on slave labor. During her research into slave registries and bills of sale, Miles finds nearly two hundred enslaved Black women named Rose. In an effort to narrow the search, she instead looks for women named Ashley.
This search ultimately leads her to the household of Robert Martin, the only person recorded as having owned a woman named Rose and a woman named Ashley at the same time. Miles notes that it is nearly impossible to be certain of whether these two women are truly the ones mentioned on the sack, but she feels it is nonetheless important to put together a general picture of what life was like for people like Rose and Ashley.
It is likely that Rose and Ashley’s separation occurred after the death of Robert Martin. Typically, when the patriarch of a plantation household died, his wife or children were instructed to liquidate his assets and divide them up. This made the death of an owner a perilous event for enslaved people, who were counted among those assets. Although Ashley was, according to the sack, only nine years old at the time, she was nonetheless sold away from her mother to an unknown future.
When faced with the loss of their children, enslaved mothers often went to extreme lengths to protect them. Some would attempt to make connections with wealthy white men and arrange for them to buy their children, whereas others would attempt daring escapes. In extreme cases, some would even kill their children in an attempt to spare them from the horrors of living in enslavement. Others, like Rose, did what they could to prepare their children for whatever may come.
The contents of Ashley’s sack are, both literally and symbolically, some of the most important elements to maintaining human life. The dress provides protection from the elements, the pecans provide vital nourishment, the hair provides a physical token of remembrance between mother and daughter, and the promise of eternal love provides emotional and spiritual fortification.
Miles notes that the inclusion of a dress in the sack is rife with potential meanings. Clothing was an important means of maintaining class hierarchies in South Carolina society, and enslaved people were relegated to wearing low-quality fabrics called "slave cloths" that could visually distinguish them from free Black people...
(This entire section contains 1071 words.)
and white people. Clothing was also typically provided by slaveholders only twice a year, meaning that enslaved people had to continue wearing filthy, thin, and tattered garments until they received new ones. This led to widespread stereotypes surrounding the sexual promiscuity of Black women, who were already frequently preyed upon by white men. A dress, then, offers Ashley valuable protection from both the elements and the indignities of exposure.
Black bodies were often the target of violence under slavery, whether it was sexual, physical, or psychological. Charleston, South Carolina, was home to the “Work House,” a state-run prison and penal facility where owners could send those they enslaved to receive punishment. Enslaved people were also faced with the continuous threat of family separation, with slaveholders making an active effort to encourage procreation—as a means of gaining more labor for free—while discouraging familial ties. Miles notes that separating children from their parents at a young age has a range of negative psychological impacts, including intense fear and a sense of helplessness. She compares slaveholders’ devaluation of family ties to the separation of undocumented immigrant children from their parents by the United States government along the United States–Mexico border.
Returning to the contents of the sack, Miles questions whether Ruth’s assertion that it contained pecans was accurate. Pecans, although native to the Americas, were only domesticated in the 1840s. Pecans were considered a luxury item in 1850s South Carolina, and it would have been extremely difficult for Rose to acquire them. However, they are also an extraordinarily nutritious nut. Slaveholders often provided only meager, corn-heavy rations to those they enslaved, resulting in widespread malnutrition and hunger. Especially because Ashley was so young at the time of her sale, the pecans would have offered highly beneficial nourishment in times of extreme scarcity.
Ultimately, Rose’s foresight seems to have worked: Ashley survived long enough to become a free woman, and her descendants clearly knew her story well enough for the sack to have been passed through the generations. It is even possible that Ashley told Ruth her story directly.
Ruth Middleton embroidered the sack in 1921, soon after moving to Philadelphia and giving birth to her daughter, Dorothy. She would later go on to join a thriving Black social community and earn enough money to support herself comfortably. Although the matrilineal line traced back to Rose appears to end with Dorothy, their family story is nonetheless one of love triumphing over cruelty. Rose placed all of her hopes for the future into Ashley’s sack, and Ashley carried those hopes forward, eventually passing them on to Ruth. Miles encourages readers to pack their own proverbial sacks of hope for the future so that the sins of the past can be rectified and a brighter tomorrow can take shape.