Harvard Professor Tiya Miles Wins National Book Award in the Nonfiction Category

Tiya Miles, a professor of history and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, has won the National Book Award in the nonfiction category. Professor Miles was honored for her book All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake (Random Houe, 2021).

In 1850s South Carolina, an enslaved woman named Rose faced a crisis, the imminent sale of her daughter Ashley. Thinking quickly, she packed a cotton bag with a few precious items as a token of love and to try to ensure Ashley’s survival. Soon after, the nine-year-old girl was separated from her mother and sold. Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered this family history on the bag in spare yet haunting language— including Rose’s wish that “It be filled with my Love always.” Ruth’s sewn words, the reason we remember Ashley’s sack today, evoke a sweeping family story of loss and of love passed down through generations.

The contents of Ashley’s sack — a tattered dress, handfuls of pecans, a braid of hair, “my Love always”—are eloquent evidence of the lives these women lived. As she follows Ashley’s journey, Miles metaphorically unpacks the bag, deepening its emotional resonance and exploring the meanings and significance of everything it contained.

The citation for the National Book Award reads: “A brilliant, original work, All That She Carried presents a Black woman’s countercompilation of lives that ordinary archives suppress. Tiya Miles’s graceful prose gives us narrative history, social history, and object history of women’s craft through the things Rose gave the daughter she was losing forever. With depth and breadth, Miles offers the visual record of love in the face of the child trafficking atrocities of slavery. This book is scholarship at its best and most heartrending.”

Dr. Miles was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Afro-American studies from Harvard University, a master’s degree in women’s studies from Emory University in Atlanta, and a Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Minnesota. Before coming to Harvard, Professor Miles taught on the faculty of the University of Michigan for 16 years, where she served as chair of the department of Afroamerican & African studies.

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