Ashley, Rose, South Carolina discussed on Here and Now


What objects have been passed down in your family history I have an old letter my grandmother in China wrote to her missionary friends in America a 102 years ago These things are filled with history and with meaning While a simple cotton sack is the subject of a book that won the national book award for nonfiction last year This act dates back to the slave auction block in Charleston South Carolina circa 1850 as best the experts can tell And a few lines stitched on the bag weaved together three women Their lives their generations their love their loss The book is all that she carried The journey of Ashley sacked a black family keepsake and it's now in paperback The author is Tia miles a historian at Harvard and we talked to her back in November So can I just start by reading the words that are embroidered onto this bag which is still around Yes In honor to read them 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 three handfuls of pecans a braid of rose's hair Told her it be filled with my love always She never saw her again Ashley is my grandmother Ruth Middleton 1921 Wow And we're going to talk about Ruth and rose and Ashley I first want to ask you what is it about this object this story that captivated you to do so much historical sleuthing into the story Well the object itself is unique and the beautiful and moving and mysterious When a person sees it for the first time I think they just fall into the story as sad as it is and also into the recognition that despite the drama that occurred generations in the past the family did survive They did pass down this object which was a testament to their love Yeah Yeah well let's talk about these women First of all rose Were you able to identify rose and her daughter Ashley in the records you were coming through I was able to identify her to what I think is a very near best guess argument And I was fortunate in this task to be following in the footsteps of an anthropologist named Mark Alexander who also traced this family Now there are not a lot of records about rose or bout Ashley and this is often the case when it comes to enslaved people enslaved women in the antebellum period So we can only come so far to absolute certainty but I think that we have nearly gotten there She determined that rose was more than likely enslaved in Charleston South Carolina in the 1850s and that she and Ashley would have been separated at that time Yeah and the suggestion is or the I guess perhaps the historical inference is that rose handed this down to her daughter Ashley At the auction block or around that time before they were separated I've read that a number of people who have seen the sack on display at the national museum of African American history and other places they begin weeping when they saw the sack Have you talked to people who have become overcome with emotion Yes I have had the chance to talk with people who saw Ashley sack on display and with curators who have worked with the object and also I've heard from readers of my book who've talked about their reaction to it And the story is so seemingly simple that I think it goes right to the heart of people's own feelings and thoughts about their relationships So one person told me about what it had been like to be an adoptive parent actually and how seeing the sack and reading my book helped him to think about that initial separation of his adoptive child from there birth mother I've had that same thought Adoptive parent And particularly on that anniversary that comes every year We kind of visit that And our thoughts on that Now let's talk about the sack and the items that were inside You describe these items as bearers of memory and information So let's talk about them There's a tattered dress three handfuls of pecans a braid of rose's hair the mother's hair Why is the hair especially significant you think The hair significant in so many ways especially with regard to African American culture and African diasporic culture In the most basic sense the hair which was a braid very important again culturally almost function like a memento because it was in a way a visual and tactile representation of rose herself Ashley's mother And black hair has often been denigrated and maligned in American culture So there's an additional layer of meaning here which is indicative of uplifting those aspects of ourselves that have actually been subjugated in American culture That comes through this gift of the braid There are also spiritual and religious implications having to do with the braid because pieces of hair could be used in African derived religious ceremonies among enslaved people As you describe it I just think it's so humanizes what can be a dehumanizing chapter in time And then there's the tattered dress and you write that before there was a printing press clothing and weaving and other textile work was a way for women to preserve history so what's preserved here People have used clothing across the millennia to communicate with one another about social status about religious beliefs about the ideas of themselves that they hope to project to others And so this dress that we know rose packed for Ashley was participating in that kind of rich deep complicated cultural communication Yeah There's rose the mother during the period of slavery and the daughter And then of course Ruth who lived in the 20th century she stitched those words on the bag that you read What do we know about Ruth and how she recovered the sack Ruth was the artist She was the person who got the story down onto not a page per se but on to you a piece of fabric We can infer from the inscription that Ruth heard this story that it was passed down through.

Coming up next