“We are here because our ancestors were extraordinary, and that is a point of pride. They fought their way out of all of those ropes and chains. We can be proud of that, and I think that’s what this work is about.”
—Tiya Miles, professor of history at Harvard University
Black Feminist in Public is a series of conversations between creative Black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.
Juneteenth honors the emancipation in 1865 of those who were enslaved in this country. At a time when discussions about the legacy of slavery—from the 1619 Project to “slavery movies”—have become politically and culturally fraught, there is an increasing number of scholars doing research about the slave past and doing so from Black feminist perspectives. The Black Feminist in Public series will highlight three scholars of slavery studies and Black women’s histories who agreed to an interview with Ms.’s Janell Hobson.
Our third and final focus is Tiya Miles, professor of history at Harvard University who studies the intersections of African American, Native American and women’s histories. She is the author of seven books—her most recent, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, exploring the history of slavery through a single object passed down through three generations of Black women in one family.
Janell Hobson: Why do you think the history of slavery has been so contentious?
Tiya Miles: Well, there was a concerted effort on the part of historians, intellectuals, enslavers, former enslavers, Southern politicians to tell us a different narrative about slavery, to try to write this chapter in U.S. history as one in which enslavers were paternalistic and benign, in which enslaved people really weren’t treated that badly, and in which we can embrace a narrative of American history that is progressive so that in the end, all is well because the country has been redeemed by virtue of the Civil Rights Movement, by virtue of the abolitionist movement even. It’s the ultimate expression of American virtue.
“There was a concerted effort … to tell us a different narrative about slavery, to try to write this chapter in U.S. history as one in which enslavers were paternalistic and benign … so that in the end, all is well because the country has been redeemed by virtue of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Hobson: How do you challenge that kind of master narrative?
Miles: Earlier generations of historians thought to pull the curtains back and show just how deadly, just how brutal and exploitative enslavement was. To tell that kind of story, they had to show the suffering and the trauma that enslaved people experienced. However, that pile-up of traumatic moments and violated bodies and devastated lives have led to a sense of Black victimhood and an overwhelming picture of passivity and of abuse, which makes it challenging to look toward the future and feel that we can stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and be proud.
Hobson: Is that a real challenge for people of African descent? To learn to feel pride in this history instead of shame.
Miles: It’s complicated. When I was in high school, I was attending a school that was predominantly white, and I remember being in the history classroom. When we reached our unit on slavery—a very short unit by the way—all eyes turned toward me, including the teacher’s. What I felt in that moment was a sense of shame, and I don’t think that’s uncommon. I’ve experienced that in my research when I have reached out to descendants of people who had been enslaved and whose stories I wanted to tell.
When I have conducted interviews with them, I have had people tell me, “No, my ancestor wasn’t enslaved,” and I’ve had to make difficult decisions on how to handle that. Because I have the documents, and I have the records that show how their ancestors were talking about their experience, and yet there was so much denial. “No, no. That’s not our past. Maybe it was some other people’s past, but our people were actually free.”
“I have had people tell me, ‘No, my ancestor wasn’t enslaved,’ and I’ve had to make difficult decisions on how to handle that. Because I have the documents, and I have the records that show how their ancestors were talking about their experience, and yet there was so much denial.”
Hobson: That denial is very telling, I think.
Miles: I mean, there’s a deep investment in that, and I think the investment is partly a reaction to the shame of being told year after year, generation after generation, that you were the people who were stepped on. You were the people who were maimed and killed. You were the people who were raped. In fact, you are a *result* of rape.
These are the high stakes that exist in this research. We have to keep reinventing this work as we do it. We have to correct and counter-correct. I think every project that we take up is a new opportunity to course-correct toward what we need in the present moment, even while recognizing that we do have academic standards around the ways in which we conduct our research, around evidence, around how we construct our narratives, around what it is that we will say very clearly and firmly, and what it is that we will admit we’re not so certain about.
Hobson: Your comment reminds me of the research of Annette Gordon-Reed, who has a new book on Juneteenth but whose award-winning work on Sally Hemings avoids calling her a “victim,” to capture all the nuances of her life. That’s a different conversation than just simply labeling President Thomas Jefferson, with whom she had children, a 19th century sexual predator in the vein of “R. Kelly”!
Miles: I think of the stages of grief. Some people did not want to have their heroic image of enlightenment hero Thomas Jefferson tarnished. To be frank, we—and by “we,” I’m speaking of African Americans, Black women. We also have aspects of our history and individuals in our history who we want to protect, who we don’t want to have sullied by certain kinds of revelations. So, we’re all emotionally and psychologically invested in historical conversations.
One of the things that I admire most about Annette Gordon-Reed’s representation of the Jefferson and Hemings relationship is exactly what you pointed out: I mean, she is the person who would not let this question rest, even when established Jefferson scholars were saying, “This is impossible. This is outrageous.” She kept pushing, and she found the evidence. She found the documentary evidence which coincided with the DNA evidence, and yet when she interpreted that evidence and when she articulated what it is that she had found, she chose the approach of taking some steps back from the heated center of the debate and saying, “Let’s look at the context. Let’s look at the complexity. Let’s look at Sally Hemings as a young person, yes, a teenager, but not an infant or a child who, in her time period, was at the age of coupling. Let’s look at her as a person who was thinking and observing and making decisions within a net of very complex relationships.”
In taking that approach, Annette Gordon-Reed perhaps didn’t give some people who were and are very angry about Jefferson’s role in that relationship the kind of portrayal that they wanted or the kind of interpretation they wanted, but I think she was being a responsible historian.
Hobson: That, of course, presents its own challenge: trying to look at history without interpreting it from your own present-day context.
Miles: You talked about op-eds comparing Thomas Jefferson to R. Kelly, and I have to say I have had my own days seething at Thomas Jefferson. I mean it’s just below the surface. You scratch it and I am furious with that man. And yet, we do need multiple voices. We need multiple opinions and takes on the issue. We need a prism-like approach because it’s a complex history and a complex situation and set of relationships. So, we have Annette Gordon-Reed’s very measured, very careful, and I think persuasive and powerful approach, which won’t satisfy everyone, and we also have people who are going to spell out the deeply exploitative nature of this kind of relationship. I think we need it all. We need multiple stories.
“I have had my own days seething at Thomas Jefferson … and yet, we do need multiple voices. We need multiple opinions and takes on the issue … because it’s a complex history and a complex situation and set of relationships.”
Hobson: Speaking of multiple stories, let’s look at your new book on slave family history. How do you do that measured approach as well as take into account your own emotional reaction to this history? Could you say more also about how you started doing this work?
Miles: I started doing this this work on the study of slavery really back in college when Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was assigned in my introductory survey to African American literature.
Hobson: That’s how I started my work in women’s studies too!
Miles: Yes. Jacobs is still signing us up, right?
Miles: So, I read that book, and I was floored. I was knocked off my feet by the book because it was so insightful and revealing, but also she was so vulnerable in it. I remember calling my grandmother and just telling her, “I don’t know what to do with this. How could they treat us this way?”
I was so close to my grandmother, and I still am even though she has passed, but also because Harriet Jacobs’s grandmother was so important to her and I really connected with that part. When I called my grandmother, that’s when she told me about her father having been enslaved. This is one of the misconceptions we have: that slavery was so far away. It doesn’t feel so far away to me because of that kind of emotional connection with the words that have been given to us by women like Jacobs and in my own family.
“This is one of the misconceptions we have: that slavery was so far away.”
Hobson: It’s interesting that this history necessarily interweaves research and emotional connections.
Miles: Yes, and this is how I started doing this work, when the world was reoriented for me after reading Harriet Jacobs’s narrative. I have been doing work on enslaved people and families, especially with Black women in the center of these stories for my whole career. In every book, there was a family, and there was a Black woman at the center of the story. When I couldn’t find a Black woman at the center of the story in terms of the evidence, I just kept broadening the circumference of the story until I could find her and interweave her history.
All That She Carried is a part of that trajectory of wanting to see Black women’s experiences, wanting to see their words, wanting to interact with them, interact with their stories about their own lives, and to center their stories in our current discourse.
The particular way that I ended up writing about Ashley’s Sack is that I felt another gut punch when I saw this artifact at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was, for me, coming full circle to the first time I read Jacobs, because now in a different form and in a very compelling form and in a particularly tactile form, I was once again coming face-to-face with a very raw, beautiful, haunting expression of the experience of enslavement, which was being offered up by a Black woman who passed down a sack to her daughter and her daughter’s daughter. I knew I had to tell that story.
“When I couldn’t find a Black woman at the center of the story in terms of the evidence, I just kept broadening the circumference of the story until I could find her and interweave her history.”
Hobson: I find it interesting how you were able to tell this story from this encounter with an artifact in a museum.
Miles: We wouldn’t have known about Rose, Ashley and Ruth if we were just wholly focused on archival records. This is a fundamental point about how looking elsewhere, searching widely, being creative expands what we might be able to say beyond what archives have stored within them. We have to do that. It is a necessity. We are still in recovery mode.
Hobson: In doing this work, how do we take pride in this history instead of shame?
Miles: Honestly, we have nothing to be ashamed about. I look back at my 15-year-old self, maybe 16, and how I felt in that classroom and how my shoulders shrunk. No. No. They are the ones whose shoulders should’ve been shrinking in terms of the way in which that lesson was presented and the way in which we were interacting with it.
We are here because our ancestors were extraordinary, and that is a point of pride. They fought their way out of all of those ropes and chains. We can be proud of that, and I think that’s what this work is about. And like our ancestors, we too can face the very urgent and very frightening problems that we are seeing around us today. Out of unstable times, we have a woman like Rose, who refused to succumb to the logic that said someone else owned her daughter. She refused that, and we too can refuse all the terrible things that are going to come our way.