Several years ago, I read a book called “Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave”, by Leonard Todd. You might remember Dave – he was talked about in Theaster Gates’ NCECA Keynote. Dave was known at the time as “David Drake”, but today is often just referred to as “Dave” or “Dave the Potter”.
Dave was born sometime around 1801 and was owned by Henry Drake. At some point, he loaned Dave to Lewis Miles. He worked as a slave in the area around Edgefield, South Carolina and at an early age, he learned to make pots. Amazingly for that time in South Carolina, he also learned how to read and write. It was the confluence of Dave’s ability as a potter, his skill as a poet, and the daring feat for a slave to illegally write his poems on pottery, that make his work so remarkable.
At the time, it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write, so it was highly dangerous for a slave to display that he or she could. Dave’s pots not only were signed “Dave” (often in addition to “LM” for Lewis Miles), but he often wrote his own poems on the side of his pots, wrappying the words around the side, often just below the rim. The words weren’t hidden on the bottom – they were right out there in the open for everyone to see.
Think about that for a moment – what is more permanent than carving words in clay and then firing that clay into ceramic? Few things in our world are more permanent than ceramic. For a slave to carve his own poems into a jar was amazing! These were protest pots!
Some examples of his writings on his pots:
“I saw a leppard, & a lions face, then I felt the need of — Grace”
Oh the moon + the stars | hard work to make big jars – Dave August 22, 1834
I wonder where is all my relations | Friendship to all – and every nation | 16 August 1857
This noble jar will hold 20 | fill it with silver then you’ll have plenty | 8 April, 1858
Good for lard and holding fresh meats | blest we were, when Peter saw the folded sheets | 3 May 1859
Watch this video to learn more about Dave:
Respond with some thoughts:
Have you heard of Dave before? Do you think someone like Dave should be taught in American art history? Why or why not?
Can you imagine being in Dave’s shoes and taking the risk of showing everyone that you can read and write? Can you imagine a world where it was illegal to teach a human being to read and write?
While it is estimated that Dave made around 40,000 pots in his lifetime, the ones with text and poems on them can sell for $175,000 or more. What do you think about that? Is there a disconnect with Dave’s pots being collected like that? Or does that honor them?
If you would like to learn more, this is a great documentary about Dave.