A #PoemPair for Poetry Friday

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
by Tiya Miles
Random House, 2021

The embroidery on the cover caught my eye and the title pulled me in to read the jacket blurb. There I absorbed the lines that Ruth Middleton embroidered on a cotton sack that her great grandmother Rose filled with simple yet precious items to give to her daughter Ashley, Ruth’s grandmother, before Ashley was sold away at the age of nine from her mother to another slave owner.

“My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her

It be filled with my Love always

she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
Ruth Middleton

The historian Tiya Miles traces every bit of what can be known, as well as inferred, about this sack, its contents, and these three women. As she traces every lead, Miles comes back again and again to the tenacity and revolutionary love of Rose and other enslaved women whose perseverance through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and the Great Migration, is what has carried generations of Black families into the present.

Reading this book made me rethink my poem “Persevere is a Word.” It seems trite now. Perhaps suitable for a motivational poster, but naively unaware of a deeper, more nuanced and historically-based version of perseverance.


Persevere is a Word

Persevere is a long word:
four hundred years long,
the distance of the Middle Passage,
the length of a ship’s hold, packed with bodies chained together.

And although persevere 
contains none of the letters that spell luck,
privilege shines through from beginning to end.

The privilege of tracing a blood line
for generation after unbroken generation 
in an ancestral story of ascension

rather than a lineage that dead-ends
in the shackles of slavery,
in lives with trauma encoded in the DNA,
in the knowledge that one’s existence
is not predicated on bootstraps
or an innocuous insistence to try again 
or the blithe assertion to summon grit

but instead dependent on ancestors who persevered
surviving horrors unimaginably severe
family members inhumanely severed from each other
per their owners’ whim.

Persevere is a light word for some,
a chirpy motivational poster word.
For others it is a heavy word,
a how-dare-you-assume word,
a claim-my-humanity,
lift-while-we-climb* word.

©Mary Lee Hahn, 2021

*Angela Davis

Matt has this week’s Poetry Friday roundup at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme.

13 thoughts on “A #PoemPair for Poetry Friday”

  1. This poem. Oh my, Mary Lee. I have often wondered this about perseverance, grit, and miracles. How impacted are each of these by privilege? This poem brings discomfort. It makes me pause. Thank you for sharing the poem and the book paired with it. I’m grateful for my stop by your blog, as always.


  2. Wow, profound and powerful, Mary Lee. Thanks for sharing about All That She Carried. Those simple embroidered words are heartbreaking. Especially love the last stanza of your poem.


  3. My bookstore orders some new books & this just arrived. I will certainly read it, have been intrigued since I read about it, Mary Lee. Your poem speaks loudly, wanting all to read, to think deeply about what we have thought as ‘grit’ is really, for others’ lives, ‘survival’. Thank you, will keep it!


  4. You’ve got something to say! And, look where it came from…your heart was moved, shaped, called by this book to see your original poem in a new way. I think you have achieved the ultimate in close reading-response. I can’t wait to read this book, now. It sounds amazing!


  5. What a story! And the words we hear about bootstraps and simply trying again seem silly in the light of real history. What an inspiring story and an amazing and wise poem, Mary Lee.


  6. Geez, Mary Lee, you don’t do things halfway! I still really love your original poem, which is about perseverance as an abstract concept, making it more concrete and also written though the lens of exploring the word itself. I also really love this new amazing poem, which to me is about the horrors and inhumanity of slavery and its legacy still today, through the lens of the concept of perseverance. I think your poems are completely different and independent of one another, and strong in two VASTLY different ways. Apples and oranges, my friend. Both delicious, and you can’t bake an apple pie with oranges.


  7. Mary Lee, the words you posted from the book are heartbreaking. I really like how you dug deep into showing that how we think about perseverance depends on our experiences and the experiences of those who came before us. Very touching poem!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you, Mary Lee, for laying your learning, your reconsideration, out there for us to partake in. Apples and oranges, yes, but I think it’s time for us to consider an apple pie flavored with the bitterness of orange peel, to develop a more sophisticated, more courageous palate. I love your last stanza, putting important words in everybody’s mouth.


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