Tiya Miles’ unforgettable All That She Carried uses the history of a single object as a focus for an exploration of Black family life during slavery and beyond. The object is the cloth sack with which Rose, an enslaved woman, sent her nine-year-old daughter Ashley off to the new master who had bought her in 1852. The bag’s original contents were both moving and meager— some pecans, a dress worn to tatters, and a braid of Rose’s hair—but its textile gained added meaning when one of Rose’s descendants decorated it with embroidery referencing Rose and Ashley’s story. Miles makes excellent use of historical documentation to find and identify Rose and Ashley, but details on the women are of course tragically few. To flesh out their experience more fully, Miles probes the sack’s original contents and the lives of better-documented Black women including author Harriet Jacobs and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, both of whom were born into slavery. 

It’s difficult to choose only a single quotation to convey the beauty and conviction of Miles’ text, but the opening of her Introduction will serve as well as any. She writes:

We forget that love is revolutionary. The word, cute and overused in American culture, can feel at times like a stuffed animal devoid of spirit or, worse, like a dead letter suitable only for easy exchange on social media platforms. But love does carry profound meanings. It indicates the radical realignment of social life. To love is to turn away from the prioritization of the ego or even one's particular party or tribe, to give of oneself for another, to transfigure the narrow "I" into the expansive "you" or "we." This four-letter word asks of us, then, one of the most difficult tasks in life: decentering the self for the good of another. This is a task for which we need exemplars, especially in our divisive times. Here in these pages, we take up the quiet story of transformative love lived and told by ordinary African American women—Rose, Ashley, and Ruth—whose lives spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, slavery and freedom, the South and the North. Their love story is one of sacrifice, suffering, lament, and the rescue of a tested but resilient family lineage.

At once moving and searing, All That She Carried is a remarkable testament to the importance of Black lives spent unrecorded and enslaved, the endurance of family connections through time's erasures and challenging circumstances, and the power of material objects to communicate emotions, values and beliefs. Though Ashley’s sack is a 19th-century artifact, Miles’ reflections have a timeless resonance. This is a book that will make you weep, rage, dream, think, and think again.

Published by Random House on June 8, 2021, All That She Carried is available for purchase at your local bookstore and on platforms including and