Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake has won the 2022 Cundill History Prize. Administered by Montreal’s McGill University, the US$75,000 award is the largest purse for a book of non-fiction published in English.
The book by the Harvard professor traces the lives of three generations of Black women through one humble object: a cotton sack found in a flea market 15 years ago. The Cundill jurors praised the author for piecing together a family history that has the “narrative propulsion of a novel,” despite a scarcity of archival sources.
“This is not a traditional history,” Miles wrote in her book’s introduction. “It leans toward evocation rather than argumentation, and is rather more meditation than monograph.”
All That She Carried is seemingly adaptable for Hollywood. The cloth keepsake at the centre of the story was given by an enslaved woman to her nine-year-old daughter Ashley, who was sold in mid-19th century South Carolina. In 1921, Ashley’s granddaughter embroidered the keepsake with an epigraph, which elaborated on its provenance with details about a braid of hair, a tattered dress and three handfuls of pecans.
When the historically significant sack was on display at a plantation museum in South Carolina, tissues were routinely handed out to viewers who wept upon learning the heartbreaking saga behind it.
The Cundill History Prize is named after Canada’s F. Peter Cundill, a philanthropist, sportsman, diarist and McGill alumnus who died in 2011. The international award has been given annually since 2008 to the book that embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal.
Jury chair J.R. McNeill, an author and Georgetown University professor, praised All That She Carried for its “clear and moving prose, its imaginative research, and the way the author illuminates the human.” The book also won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2021 and was warmly received by major U.S. publications including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The lone Canadian winner of the Cundill is Susan Pedersen, a U.S.-based historian whose The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire earned the honour in 2015. Canada’s Rebecca Clifford, for Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust, was a finalist for last year’s Cundill, won by Marjoleine Kars for Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast.
The two other finalists for this year’s prize (Ada Ferrer, for Cuba: An American History and Vladislav Zubok, for Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union) each received US$10,000.
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