Greetings, Poetry Lovers! Have you heard of or already read the book ALL THAT SHE CARRIED by renowned historian Tiya Miles? My husband Jeff gave it to me for Valentine's Day, and I'm reading it now. A 2021 National Book Award Winner, the book trails many other prestigious honors, including a 2022 PEN award, the PEN/JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH AWARD FOR NONFICTION, just announced on February 28th.
The jacket flap begins:
In 1850s South Carolina, an enslaved woman named Rose faced a crisis, the imminent sale of her daughter Ashley. Thinking quickly she packed a cotton bag with a few precious items as a tooken of love and to try to ensure Ashley's survival. Soon after, the nine-year-old girl was separated from her mother and sold.
Decades later, Ashey's granddaughter Ruth embroidered this family history on the bag in spare yet haunting language - including Rose's wish that "It be filled with my Love always."
Ruth Middleton embroidered these and more words in 1921, a hundred years before this book was published. I learned from a friend that the sack was on display at Middleton Place, a historic plantation open to the public near Charleston, through February. Jeff and I have visited there several times, so my car knows the way. (Learn more about Middleton Place here.) I had to see the sack.
I went up last Sunday - a gorgeous late-winter-almost-spring day - with ticket in hand for the house museum, where the sack was displayed. The staff and volunteers there are always approachable and willing to entertain questions. I asked an obvious one - Was Ruth Middleton connected through the past to this particular estate? Evidently she wasn't.
I should perhaps interject here that of course historical sites like this are wrought with horrific histories - the bricks of the small part of the house that is left (after the Union Army, and then an earthquake, were through with it) as well as the nationally known grounds and gardens, were laid and built by enslaved people of immense talent. In recent years the story-telling at some of these sites has become more inclusive than it used to be.
Ashley's sack will be off to receive a better display treatment, then returned to Middleton Place for a while, and then loaned to The International African American Museum which is scheduled to open in Charleston, SC, this year. (You can learn more about the new museum here.)
Though I had seen pictures of the sack in the book and online, it is always something more to see a thing in person. Ashley's sack was larger than I had pictured it in my mind, and a substantial thing for a young girl to carry. My eyes welled with tears at the sight of it, at trying to imagine a scene and life event that is unimaginable. How did she, and her mother, survive such a brutal separation? And yet survive Ashley did, and the small bits of her family's story that are known inspired this rich work by Tiya Miles.
I'm still early in the book, but I enjoyed reading in the introduction about a treasured quilt in the author's family, now hers, made by a great aunt who had an amazing story. Quilts have been part of my own family, too, and we still sleep under a double-wedding ring quilt my mother's mother made for our wedding (nearly 38 years ago!). Our kids received quilts from Jeff's father's mother when they were born, and crocheted afghans that his mother made. I have plans to make a little something for our first grandbaby due in June. These stitched gifts of comfort and warmth hold such immense power and connection, don't they?
I'm grateful to have received this book, during Black History Month rolling right into Women's History Month. Please visit Tiya Miles's website for much more about this book and other works. You can see Ashley's sack and Ruth's poetic, artistic addition to the heirloom.
all the blooms the same color
in the end
©2022 Robyn Hood Black. All rights reserved.
Our wonderful Kat Apel is rounding up Poetry Friday for us this week - Thanks, Kat!