Touring the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in just four hours is not enough if you wish to explore the 85,000 square feet of exhibition space, where about 3000 objects, 12 exhibitions, 13 different interactives with 17 stations, and 183 videos that are housed on five floors. You would need more time to understand why millions of African Americans had to be beaten, flagged, or hanged mercilessly, like animals, by “white” people, from the 1400s to the present. Then, you might be compelled to ask, “Where was God? Why did God allow enslavement and slavery to flourish in America for more than six centuries? Whatever happened to this country’s so-called Freedom and Democracy?” These questions have heightened my feelings of anger and disappointment, especially when I saw Ashley’s Sack, one of the most mysterious objects on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
On the wall in one of the Museum galleries, there is an unbleached cotton seed sack, which has ten lines of embroidered text narrating the slave sale of Ashley, a nine-year-old girl, and the sack that her mother gave her as a gift. The embroidered text was done by Ashley’s granddaughter, Ruth Middleton. It states that the sack contains a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, a braid of her mother’s hair, and it will always be filled with love. These lines of text also say that Ashley never saw her mother again. The last line mentions the year 1821.
The slave traders had apparently left Ashley’s mother with no choice but to part with her daughter, whose rights as a child and human being were not protected and whose dignity was not respected. During that time, African children of Ashley’s age were considered commodities that could be sold, like cows and horses. And, Ashley’s mother might have been a slave, too, but she loved her daughter so much. Thus, she made sure that Ashley would not go hungry nor miss her mother, by filling the sack with pecans and her braided hair. She was just like most mothers whose affinity to her child is beyond compare. Ashley might have felt the same way, too. She could have struggled against and resisted the slave traders, but her soft bones and developing physical strength were inferior to the cruel, greedy, and selfish slave traders who took her away and separated her from her mother.
This poignant tale reminded me of my own experience when my mother left me in the care of my grandparents when I was only three or four years old. Though she left me with some food for my daily subsistence, the bond that used to bind us together as mother and daughter was temporarily severed. My feelings, however, about my temporary separation from my mother were not as great as those of Ashley because I never experienced what Ashley had gone through during the era of slavery.
However, I can identify with the feelings of my fellow Filipinos and other international students in the seminary, who have been subjected to the systemic racism, racist attitudes, and the White Culture that has been ingrained in the minds, hearts, and souls of most people – white, people of color, and others who have grown up in this country. This oppressive structure has been the greatest challenge that I have had to overcome as a seminarian who used to be a social development worker, with international connections that include Agnostics and non-Christian Americans, Asians, Africans, Europeans, and other nationalities. We were only concerned about helping to uplift the socio-economic conditions of the poor and marginalized sectors of society, empowering people to make decisions for themselves. Particularly, how to live life fully as persons, who are made in the Creator’s image and likeness.