Esteemed Author and Professor Tiya Miles Speaks at Groton Circle Talk

Slavery should be taught through the words of the enslaved, using primary sources rather than the incomplete or whitewashed textbooks that still show up too often in many classrooms around the U.S. today.
Author and Harvard professor Tiya Miles made that point in response to a student’s question during a Circle Talk for the Groton School community on Thursday, October 21. "I want students to see that enslaved people were fully human, making choices, loving their families," she said. "They were not solely victims.”
Teaching through firsthand accounts, she added, would also demonstrate how a system of slavery turned into a set of values for slaveholders and society—with its imprint still firmly rooted in our lives today.
Dr. Miles’ latest book, All That She Carried—winner of the National Book Award and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize—tells the story of three generations of Black women through an artifact and family heirloom, a simple seed sack. This sack was packed by a mother, enslaved herself, for her nine-year-old daughter, who was being sold to another slaveholder.
Director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University and a 2011 recipient of the so-called MacArthur “genius” grant, Dr. Miles has published extensively on African American and Native American histories, and their intersection. She told the Groton audience that her research on the Cherokee nation proved particularly challenging because she had expected to chronicle a story she had heard throughout her life, of enslaved Black people finding a safe haven on Native American reservations, but instead discovered that some Native Americans themselves held slaves. “I didn’t know I was going to be studying slavery because I didn’t know that slavery had existed in Native communities,” she said.
Even some descendants of the enslaved could not accept this reality. “What I found was that many African Americans seemed to prefer to hold onto those stories and those [safe harbor] narratives,” she said. “…they did not want to hear about captivity and violence and disavowal.” She also found that many Cherokee people rejected the fact that some members of their nation had enslaved Blacks.
While Dr. Miles struggled with the inevitable fallout she would face from amplifying these stories, in the end, truth won her internal battle. “The biggest challenge I faced was feeling uncertain about whether I should even be doing the work,” she said. “… I decided that injustice and its legacy must be brought into the light, no matter who the victims and perpetrators are.”
For this academician, it is impossible to detach from such powerful, and personal, research. The speaker explained her ongoing dilemma—“how to make sense of, where to put, my own emotional reactions to the material, because this is not easy material—this is often very disturbing, disheartening material.”
At times, the work can be debilitating. For example, Dr. Miles mentioned one story about an enslaved person who committed suicide, leaving a family to deal with the loss of a loved one alongside the exploitation of their day-to-day lives. “These experiences—they are all over the primary material,” she said. “They are just everywhere.” Groton's U.S. History faculty teach about slavery using such primary sources, such as Frederick Douglass' writings and audio recordings of formerly enslaved persons made during the New Deal.
The virtual Circle Talk was primarily in a question-and-answer format. When one student asked about dangerous misconceptions about slavery, Dr. Miles pointed to assertions that no one is culpable because slavery happened long ago, during a time of different mores. “Dead wrong,” she said, explaining that slavery remains close to us today both in terms of time—the U.S. is still relatively young—and relationships, as many African Americans have heard accounts of slavery within their own families.
While today’s world has undoubtedly improved, she said, “it still has the imprint of that racialized caste system embedded.”
Despite the heavy weight that her seven books (including one novel) and countless articles carry, Dr. Miles resolutely clings to hope. She acknowledged “a sense of inner conflict and tension” about the world today and the anxiety young people feel from ever-present, competing crises—from climate change to the normalization of authoritarianism in politics. 
Yet she emphasized the need for optimism. “I’m trying very, very hard to hold onto a sense of hope and the possibility that what has been broken can be repaired again,” she said, then urged students to do the same.
“I ask of you: try to step willfully into a space of hope.”