To Find the History of African American Women, Look to Their HandiworkRoundup
tags: African American history, womens history, primary sources
Tiya Miles is a history professor and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Her latest book is All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake from which this essay is excerpted.
Rose was in existential distress that fateful winter in South Carolina in 1852. She was facing the deep kind of trouble that no one in our present time knows and that only an enslaved woman has felt. For Rose understood that, following the death of her legal owner, she or her little girl, Ashley, could be next on the auction block.
Ripping loved ones apart was a common practice in a society structured—and indeed, dependent—on the legalized captivity of people deemed inferior. And sale could not have been the end of Rose’s worries. She must have dreaded what could occur after this relocation: the physical cruelty, sexual assault, malnourishment, mental splintering, and even death that was the lot of so many young women defined as “slaves.” Rose adored her daughter and desperately sought to keep her safe. But what could safety possibly mean at a time when a girl not yet 10 years old could be lawfully caged and bartered?
Rose gathered all of her resources—material, emotional, and spiritual—and packed an emergency kit for the future. She gave that bag to Ashley, who carried it and passed it down across the generations.
That stained antique sack hung in a case at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., from the day of its grand opening in September 2016 until March 2021, and the sack is now on site at the Middleton Place plantation, a national historic landmark in Charleston, South Carolina. The fabric artifact immediately takes hold of those who view it, for on the cotton sack is embroidered an inscription that appears to us like a message in a bottle from across the waves of time:
My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her
It be filled with my Love always
she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
The study of the history of African American women is particularly challenging because the keepers of records often overlooked us. The historian Jill Lepore has encapsulated the problem in relation to the wide scope of American history, writing that the “archive of the past … is maddeningly uneven, asymmetrical, and unfair.” So where can historians turn when the archival ground collapses beneath us? To discover the past lives of those for whom the historical record is abysmally thin, I’ve found that we must expand the materials we use as sources of information.
Though early women’s history can be elusive, women need not “conjure a history for ourselves,” the archaeologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber says. “Here among the textiles,” she writes, “we can find some of the hard evidence we need.” The historian Elsa Barkley Brown wrote that if we “follow the cultural guides which African American women have left us,” we will “understand their worlds.” Our foremothers wove spiritual beliefs, cultural values, and historical knowledge into their flax, wool, silk, and cotton webs. The work of their hands can lead us back to their histories, and serve as guide rails as we grope through the difficult past.
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