In All That She Carried (Random House, June.), Miles details the material and symbolic significance of a cotton sack packed by an enslaved mother for her nine-year-old daughter, Ashley.
What do objects such as Ashley’s sack tell us about slavery that written records can’t?
Most enslaved women could not read or write because Southern laws prohibited the education of unfree African Americans. Most did not pen autobiographies or leave file folders full of paper records. But all of these women made things, touched things, and used things. When these material objects survive through time and can be identified and contemplated, they offer a means of access to Black women’s activities and inner worlds.
Why does this particular object elicit such a strong emotional response from people who view it?
The story inscribed on the sack by the granddaughter who inherited it starkly describes the separation of an enslaved daughter from an enslaved mother through commercial sale. The visceral content of the story, and the harshness of its brevity, makes it at once compelling and heartbreaking.
Is it an injustice that this family heirloom is now owned by a plantation house museum?
It is fair to point out a symbolic injustice in the fact that this lost treasure now belongs to a foundation that operates a plantation. There is no getting around the sense that the current ownership of the sack echoes the past ownership of this Black family. And yet, we live in a complex cultural world. The stewardship of cultural institutions—many of them owned or operated by white museum and historic site professionals—makes the preservation of many precious African American objects possible. Ultimately, Ashley’s descendants should be the ones to decide where this object is housed or displayed. To my knowledge, there are no direct descendants. Should descendants come forward, however, they would have a moral right to possess their familial inheritance.
You argue in the book that the story of Ashley’s sack holds lessons for issues such as police brutality and climate change. How so?
The story reminds us that physical deprivation and brutality have always been part of the Black experience in America, but also that African American women have found creative ways to care for family and for themselves despite these assaults. Stepping forward into the future even while threats loom large has always been a Black women’s practice. If it were not so, people like me and my daughters, descendants of enslaved women, would not be alive today to tell the tales. And a similar point might be made about climate change. I think that grossly oppressed populations like enslaved women of the past who managed to preserve life, make families, and build communities, can be models of ethical perseverance.