This book was fascinating, and very different from what I expected. In the 1850s South Carolina, a young enslaved girl, Ashley, was sold away from her mother. Ashley’s mother, Rose, packed a sack for Ashley to take, containing “a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always”. Two generations later, Ruth Middleton, Ashley’s granddaughter, embroidered text onto the sack explaining its contents and significance.
Miles uses each of the items in the sack, as well as the sack and itself, as a jumping off point to explore and contextualize the history and culture of enslaved people, particularly in South Carolina where Rose and Ashley lived. There is no doubt here that Miles is a historian. There is a huge amount of research and context in this very slim book. Sometimes I found myself questioning assumptions that the author made when there was a hole in the historical record or an absence of information. However, the author never lets the reader forget why these holes and elisions exist: the deliberate and systematic erasure perpetrated by those who profited from the system of chattel slavery, and who had a vested capitalistic and political interest in maintaining the subjugation of the enslaved population.
One of the most unsettling things that I learned from this book was the history of Charleston, SC. Much of the book takes place in and around Charleston, as the family that enslaved Ashley had a home there. I’ve always thought that Charleston would be an interesting place to visit, with beautiful architecture, graceful streets, the whole Southern Charm vibe. (You would think I would know better than to take Southern Charm at face value, but sometimes assumptions persist.) What I learned is that Charleston, maybe more than any other famous city, was built by, upon, and in order to perpetuate slavery. Those beautiful walled houses? Walled to keep enslaved people from trying to escape their bondage. Charleston was also the site of one of the largest slave auction houses in the nation (now a museum).
Truly a fascinating read, packed with detail about the lives of black and enslaved women. The sack itself was on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture until 2021 (very disappointed that I missed it somehow when I visited in 2018), and will soon be on display at the International African American Museum in Charleston. Maybe I’ll get to Charleston for a visit after all – but looking with different eyes.