A Simple Cotton Sack: A Conversation about African American Women, Trauma, and Resistance


Thursday, February 3, 2022

6:00 PM to 7:00 PM

Central Time (US & Canada)


This program is free and open to all; advance registration required. The registration period has closed for this event.

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NOTE: You can also watch a live stream of the program on the Newberry Facebook page or YouTube channel.


In a display case at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture sat a rough cotton bag, known as “Ashley's sack.The bag was embroidered with a remembrance that evokes a sweeping family story of loss and of love, passed down through generations:

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

—Ruth Middleton, 1921

Rose's gift to Ashley inspired historian Tiya Miles to carefully unearth these women's faint presence in archival records. She follows the paths of their lives—and the lives of so many women like them—in her most recent book, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. This revelatory history of the experience of slavery and the uncertain freedom afterward in the United States won the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

In this installment of “Conversations at the Newberry,” Tiya Miles will be joined by Megan Sweeney, whose lyric essays and writings on African American literature and incarceration also engage with material culture. Their conversation will focus on the ways that women exercise agency under significant constraints and find meaning and beauty amid pain.


Conversations at the Newberry are generously sponsored by Sue and Melvin Gray.

Purchase All that She Carried online from the Newberry Bookshop.

Your generosity is vital in keeping the library's programs, exhibitions, and reading rooms free and accessible to everyone. Make a donation today.


Tiya Miles is Professor of History at Harvard University, Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and Director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard. In addition to All That She Carried, her multiple-award-winning books include Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom; The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story; and Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War EraShe also has written a work of fiction, The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts. 

Megan Sweeney is Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of English, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. Her publications include the award-winning book, Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons; an edited collection, The Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading; and a forthcoming collection of lyric essays called Mendings. Professor Sweeney also has written widely about African American literature, reading, and incarceration; and published lyric essays in BrevityEntropy MagazineThe Normal School, and Bennington Review. 



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