Listening is very important. Sometimes there’s nothing really to say but “I hear you.” This kept occurring to me during All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake. Tiya Miles is a history professor, and she helpfully includes an afterword telling how she came upon the topic for this book. Ashley’s sack is just that, a sack. On it, the owner, a female descendent of enslaved African-Americans, stitched a short inscription about the history of the sack, how her grandmother had given it to her mother when the latter was a child under ten, sold away from her mother in South Carolina. This isn’t an easy book to read. I have difficulty being faced with what “religious” “white” folks did to Blacks and justified themselves that people can be bought and sold. Listen, I told myself, just listen.
Those who would deny that any of this ever happened need to learn to listen. In order to capitalize on the resources this country offered, our ancestors engaged in morally reprehensible acts. And the cruelty didn’t end with the shipping and the selling. The treatment of unfree Black people itself was a crime, and their white captors knew full well what they were doing. Preventing their slaves from having nice things while they themselves lived in luxury. Beating, raping, and murdering when they didn’t get their way. Selling their own offspring born of slaves to make a profit. All the while claiming to be good Christians. It’s often this part that I have trouble understanding. Even a literalistic reading gives no license for treating other human beings this way. Only money does that.
The style of history in this book isn’t that to which many of us are accustomed. At the point of raising mental critiques I repeated, “You must learn to listen.” Those who have made the rules showed themselves to be corrupt, and they must be willing to consider alternative ways of telling a story. Miles makes the point that the history of unfree Blacks was largely erased, leaving the possibilities for histories and heritages slim; if the regular rules are themselves oppressive then it may be time to listen to those of others. It seems impossible in the age of the world-wide web and all that it implies that we live on a planet where people repeatedly deny their sins while clutching their Bibles in their fists. We need to learn to listen.