I started this post to coincide with Juneteenth earlier this year, and here we are in September. But guess what, it’s always a good time to learn about history, especially if you are a slave in Texas, and only officially learned about the Emancipation Proclamation (enacted on 1/1/1863) on 6/19/1865, “when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as ‘Juneteenth,’ by the newly freed people in Texas.” (Source National Museum of African American History and Culture.)
As we know, the Proclamation did not change the lives of previously enslaved people significantly. Those wily white people just created more laws to keep the same control over Black people. Kinda like they are still doing today.
But we can still learn about slavery and the Black experience, holiday or not, and so I highly recommend All that She Carried, by Tiya Miles. The subtitle is “The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake.”
It’s a true story of a seed sack found in a thrift store that had a brief but illuminating piece of history embroidered on it: “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 handfuls of pecans and a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always. She never saw her again. Ashley is my grandmother. Ruth Middleton 1921.”
When I first read the book I was amazed and envious that the Tiya could write 300 pages about one sack, especially given that records for slaves are nearly non-existent or don’t go into detail beyond what a human being’s monetary worth is. But I am starting to understand that so much of Black history in this country is hidden, forgotten, or not thought worthy of preserving. The sack is the tip of the tapestry of that history. Of our history. Tiya unpacks every word, every sentence, what is there and what is implied. I kept waiting for her to find Ruth Middleton’s ancestor, so I could have a happy ending. I think that is a very white expectation that very well misses the point. And I had to look at myself and say, guess what sweet cheeks, slavery ain’t got a happy ending.
Each word and phrase on the sack points to more untold stories: families being separated, children being sold away from their mothers. Think about a 9-year-old you know or know of. Taken away and sold to a stranger. How do you cope as a mother? As a child? How do you cope as a bystander? Tiya excavates this landscape and explains so many things: how slavery was even worse in places like South Carolina, the significance of including a dress and pecans, both hard to come by for a person who was enslaved. She brings meaning and humanity to Rose, Ashley, Ruth and the thousands of women they represent.
Well, she did for me, anyway. And the National Book Award people, too. I think one of the reasons it took me so long to write this post was that I was trying to add my usual sarcasm or a dash of humor to help the slavery go down, but I couldn’t and shouldn’t. And now I carry with me all that she carried.