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The radical hope of Black motherhood

One family’s heirloom reveals a broader legacy: brilliant practicality in the face of terror.

Judith Rudd for the Boston Globe

Black women could be called the unheralded mothers of this nation. They have birthed, adopted, tended, and taught generations of children in their own biological and adoptive families and in the families of others. They have guarded loved ones from grave threats to their lives. During the period of enslavement, when the loss of a child to the market was a likely effect of a cruel system, African American mothers responded to their harrowing situation with a range of courageous and creative defenses. One hauntingly beautiful example of a brave Black mother’s confrontation with terror unfolded in Charleston, S.C., in the 1850s reign of King Cotton. That mother’s name was Rose.

Like uncountable other Black mothers, Rose was forced to part with her child, a 9-year-old girl named Ashley, who was viewed as merchandise by the elite family that owned them both. As a woman without a public voice or legal protection, who was herself defined as property, Rose could do little to stop this assault on her daughter’s humanity. Yet she refused inaction in the face of this loss. When she realized that Ashley’s sale was inevitable, Rose packed an emergency sack filled with things that she must have hoped might save a small girl’s life — a dress, pecans, and a braid of Rose’s own hair — and told her it would also contain her love, always. The dress would keep Ashley clothed, could shield her bare skin from the buyer’s eye, and might someday even aid in disguise and escape. The braid, a visual and tactile representation of Rose, would be a memento. The nuts could stave off hunger. And love could remind Ashley that life was worth living. Although Ashley survived to mother her own children and grandchildren, she never saw her mother again.

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Ashley carried the sack with her for a lifetime. We know this because she handed it down to the next generations, who lovingly patched and transported it over the years. Today, this unique object that attests to a Black woman’s radical mothering is owned by the Middleton Place Foundation of South Carolina and has been exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is evidence of the staying power of Black mother love against the odds.

Ashley survived thanks in part to her mother’s quick planning under pressure. The story of the sack survived because Ashley and her progeny passed it on. The tale of Rose’s act of rescue was transposed into the historical record when another young mother in their family line, Rose’s great-granddaughter Ruth Middleton, embroidered the story of the sack and its contents onto the textile bag. For Rose’s descendants, the sack became a family heirloom. For us, it can be a symbol of hope in a world that seems frayed beyond repair.

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The sack that an enslaved woman named Rose gave to her daughter Ashley. A descendant later embroidered it with its story.
The sack that an enslaved woman named Rose gave to her daughter Ashley. A descendant later embroidered it with its story.Courtesy of the Middleton Place Foundation

Enslavement was a state of constant familial loss. Mothers lost children and children lost mothers in a vicious cycle of sale and death even as African Americans collectively suffered a violent break from their motherland of Africa. This is why the cultural theorist Saidiya Hartman titled her incisive travel memoir about the trans-Atlantic slave trade “Lose Your Mother.” This raw phrasing captures an essential aspect of the Black historical experience. But despite nightmarish circumstances that must have felt world-ending, Black mothers raised the children left to them with a brilliant practicality rooted in love, propelled by the belief that these descendants deserved a future.

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While they did not always win contests with enslavers, Black mothers waged a guerrilla war against the diminishment of their children’s self-worth. Through actions as well as words, they insisted that these children were deserving of tenderness, affection, and dignity. And in the act of expressing a right to love and protect their offspring, Black women declared their own humanity. It is noteworthy that Black mothers extended this care not only to Black children but also to white children whom they were compelled to nurse during slavery, and whom they sometimes chose to raise in later decades when domestic labor in white households was one of few economic options.

Out of this historical entanglement of love, loss, and compromise, Black mothers today continue to fight for their children, even as they compose a living tableau of what the cultural critic Imani Perry has movingly called “so many pietàs,” in reference to the classic art imagery of the Virgin Mary cradling her dead son.

The anthropologist Christen A. Smith has aptly described sorrow as an emotional artifact of “radical Black mothering in times of terror.” But physical artifacts like the sack Rose gave Ashley remind us that Black mothers have also bequeathed a legacy of hope. Their examples provide us with models for envisioning a radical defense of Black children, Black families, and humanity writ large. We, the recipients of generations of their love, owe them a debt of gratitude as we apply their lessons to the urgent work of mending the future.

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Tiya Miles, a professor of history at Harvard, is author of the forthcoming book “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake,” on sale June 8.