The Memory Keeper

MacArthur ‘genius’ Tiya Miles 95G weaves African American and Cherokee histories into a vivid—and often tragic—tapestry

By Tom Nugent

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Tiya Miles 95G

Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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When the telephone rang, Tiya Miles 95G was in the middle of washing her family’s breakfast dishes.

The caller was Daniel J. Socolow. After identifying himself as the director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, he asked Miles a rather strange question.

“Are you sitting down?”

Miles, who teaches both African American and Native American history at the University of Michigan, tightened her grip on the phone. “No,” she told him, “but I can be.”

Miles sank down on the wooden staircase that flanks the kitchen in her Ann Arbor home, listening to Socolow announce that she had just been awarded $500,000 in the form of a no-strings-attached “genius grant” from the famed John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Since these grants are awarded based on anonymous nominations rather than applications, the calls are famously unexpected.

“Really, I was just plain astonished,” says Miles of that unforgettable October morning. “At first, when he told me he was from the MacArthur Foundation, I assumed he wanted a recommendation from me for some other candidate they were considering.”

In that moment, after more than a decade of fiercely original research on the frontier between African American and Native American history, Miles joined the elite recipients of one of the most prestigious (and most lucrative) independent fellowship grants in the world.

Miles, 41 and a descendant of African slaves in rural Mississippi, was recognized as a scholar with a powerful gift for writing historical narratives that connect the Africa-linked culture of American slavery with the aboriginal culture of the Cherokee Nation.

“For many years, I’d been struggling to construct these narratives of obscure American communities, while also trying to uncover the often hidden forces that had shaped them,” she says. “The stories I had been telling were stories about people marginalized by history—black people and Native American people who lived their lives as nearly invisible figures at the edge of the majority culture. And now, all at once, that research seems to have plunged me into the mainstream.”

The author of two histories of the complicated and often painful relationship between black slaves and Cherokees in the nineteenth century, Miles has gained increasing national recognition as a chronicler of the ways in which both chattel slavery and colonialism affected their victims over time. Rather than abstract analyses of historical trends, Miles crafts passionate narratives of suffering human beings full of blood, danger, and an always threatened but somehow enduring hope.

In Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (University of California Press, 2005), Miles recounts the story of a Cherokee farmer and celebrated warrior named Shoe Boots and the struggles of the black slave woman named Doll who eventually became the mother of his five children.

Miles’s vivid account of their often tormented union is crammed with psychological and emotional details that lay bare the agonizing distortions caused by both colonial genocide and the cruel institution of slavery.

In her preface to the book, Miles explains how she became interested in the story of Shoe Boots and Doll—a narrative that poignantly captures the complex reality of a desperate world on the fringes of mainstream American society. “The Shoe Boots family opened up an entire history,” Miles writes, “that I, growing up in an African American family, majoring in Afro-American studies in college, and studying Native American history in graduate school, had never heard. And yet this story seemed vital to gaining a full understanding of the American past, since it moved through and encompassed key moments, issues, and struggles both in African American and American Indian histories.”

In a second book on a similar historical subject, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), Miles documents “Chief James Vann’s control of his [Georgia] plantation and abuse of his Cherokee wives and African slaves.” That volume showed how the “family history and . . . economic hierarchy” of the Vann Plantation “tragically mirrored the social order of early Southern society.”

Praised by literary critics and history scholars alike, the two books reflect Miles’s determination to become “a witness to lives that were vulnerable, to human beings who suffered in silence and obscurity, far out of sight of the majority culture that surrounded them.”

If you ask this scholar and author (she’s also the mother of three young children and married to psychologist Joseph Gone) to describe how her personal history has shaped her feelings for her subjects, she’ll tell you about her upbringing as the descendant of Mississippi-born grandparents who moved to Cincinnati in the years after the Great Depression.

“For them, it was the usual ‘great migration’ story,” she says. “They came to Ohio looking for new jobs and a new start in the North.”

Miles’s father was a public elementary school teacher; her mother worked for years in a Cincinnati department store. Every night at the dinner table, Miles was encouraged to study hard and think for herself. And when her mom spotted a newspaper ad for a high school scholarship program called “A Better Chance,” Miles’s life changed forever.

She won the scholarship and wound up attending an academically high-powered prep school in Massachusetts. That was a key stepping-stone to Harvard University in the late 1980s, where she would major in African American studies while also developing a growing interest in women’s studies. Determined to carry that interest forward, she landed at Emory as a graduate student in fall 1993.

It was here, she says, that the trajectory of her academic career really took off and her passion for writing history was ignited. During a challenging course in African American fiction in which “the classroom was frequently silent” as the students wrestled with novels that explored racial issues, Miles felt herself awakening to the ways in which the historical force of slavery currently and cunningly affects the lives of black Americans.

That course was taught by the late Professor Rudolph Byrd, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and a legendary figure in African American scholarship at Emory, and it pushed the graduate students who were taking it to the absolute max. “One of the first novels we read was Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Miles recalls, “and that book had always been very difficult for me to understand, because she was dealing with the effects of slavery on her characters. All at once, with the help of Professor Byrd, I began to see the intimate ways that slavery had affected the lives of Morrison’s characters. Now I was seeing the inside of a person’s being, as well as the outside. And that was extremely important for my later work as a historian who became determined to catch the texture, the inner feeling, and the lived experiences of my historical subjects.”

With a growing understanding of the connection between lived history and the emotions and memories of those who experience it, Miles went on to earn a PhD at the University of Minnesota in 2000. By then, her explorations into the hidden lives of her minority subjects had taken a new turn, toward the frontier zone where African American and Native American histories intersect.

Inspired by her grandmother’s often-told folk legends of occasional intermarriage between Cherokee and African American Miles ancestors in rural Mississippi in the late nineteenth century (legends that are still undocumented, she says), Miles by the mid-1990s would find herself deeply immersed in the research that led to her two recent books—and to the MacArthur “genius grant” that she hopes will give her the freedom to pursue her subject with single-minded devotion in the years ahead.

Miles describes herself as a “witness and memory keeper” who’s determined to uncover the heretofore invisible lives of “people who were vulnerable in their day.”

“I do think I’m a hopeful person,” she will tell you with a quiet smile, when you ask her to describe the impact of her often-tragic historical narratives on her own psyche. “There’s no doubt that things have improved for most minorities in this country during the past few decades, and that’s something I feel very positive about.

“But history also teaches us that there are always vulnerable people out there, and that they have quite frequently been exploited and victimized by those who are more powerful. By keeping the memory of these vulnerable human beings alive as a historian, I’m hoping that we can help protect those in the present from similar fates . . . so that our own hope for justice and dignity for all can come a little closer to reality each day.”

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