A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold. —Proverbs 22:1, the Bible, King James Version

What’s in a name? Everything. It’s identity; the label we live, love, and, all too often, hate by. Fame, fortune, failure, and infamy make names and then destroy them. We discover kinship by name. Place names are the labels that mark destination and destiny. Without names we lose face and are lost on ambiguous maps.

Edgefield, South Carolina, is one of those unambiguous places where a name answers many questions. It’s in southern Piedmont County where the ecology, geography, and geology fit like a glove to make it a place on the periphery. It is defined by its clay—a sticky, mostly infertile argillic consolidation, as red as a summer sunrise, it lies exposed over much of the county and is what remains after a couple of centuries of abuse by cotton planters. Clay, considered infertile and not good for much beyond growing pines, broom sedge, and curse words from those stuck in it, is still somehow the basis for a wild richness of white-tailed deer and wild turkeys that find favor in ecotones, where field and forest feather one into the other. Look down from heaven or your airplane window seat and you’ll see ribbons and scabs of red everywhere. That’s the clay that put Edgefield on the map. 

Edgefield was and still is home in some ways. There is a known richness in edges. There’s also a history of a hate as deep as the bedrock beneath the clay. I covet memories of my family and friends on the farm. I still crave its wildness. But there is no edge or middling with its racist undertow, past or present. I despise that but never dismiss it. Bittersweet as it all is, I claim it, by the clayey soil that grew me and the wildness that sustains me. 

Long before me, though, there was someone else who claimed the Edgefield clay and, rather than cursing it, cradled it in hands so skilled that his work still stands as an example of ceramic genius. David Drake, an enslaved potter, was an extraordinary man, a master craftsman whose hands shaped and gave form to pots and jugs. Because of the quality of the Edgefield clay, said to be among the finest in the world, and the functionality and beauty of his creations, both enslavers and those who benefited from slavery wanted what Drake made then. Their descendants covet his pottery even more now. There was more to his ceramic forms than ordinary function. As solidly as the vessels held what was intended, they conveyed in their rotund bodies the life of a man who, even now, exceeds the expectations of profile and stereotype. Drake likely produced hundreds of items but on a few occasions decided to up the ante on his work. Against the life-stifling legal statutes of the time, he scribed poems on jugs and signed his name sometimes to own the craftsmanship—and his own humanity. 


The simple lines and couplets, such as:

“I wonder where is all my relations

Friendship to all and every nation”

When he signed, it was a simply scripted “Dave.”


The words and signature reflect a deep ponderance of Drake’s condition and a humanitarian’s declaration. A longing of Afro-diasporic disconnection and a claim to self-determination were etched in stoneware. The words were simple, often coded with messages that probably eluded most of those who claimed superiority by race and dismissed Drake’s genius as some sort of sideshow oddity. After all, during his lifetime, Black people were exhibited at county fairs as livestock and kept in zoos. They were live subjects in medical experiments. Abuse was the enslaved person’s condition. In this context, David Drake was much more than skilled. 

He was brave. 

Literacy could be a death sentence for an enslaved person. Those found with books or the ability to read were often punished severely and sometimes killed. Drake paid no attention to the no-literacy edicts. His art was a megaphone. Though infrequently done, his work flew in the face of convention. And so, as history often proves itself to be the foil of irony, the words of an illegally literate Black man now spellbind collectors and museum curators in a way that magnifies the object but never fully does justice to the human being who created it. Reduced by most for decades to “Dave the Slave,” these days, Drake pieces, worth a few dollars at most a few decades ago, now fetch hundreds of thousands. His work, and that of other enslaved Edgefield potters, is coveted with a unique fervor. In a way, the rush to own what an owned person made has turned the pots and jugs into skulls to be fondled. Sadly, the names of David Drake and all those unknown would matter even less if the jugs didn’t fetch a king’s ransom. 

I can imagine Mr. Drake in a small shed. The potter’s wheel spins, and he takes up handfuls of mud and throws them forcefully onto the platter. The mound of mud begins to become something, and the wheel spins on as a friend and assistant, Henry Simkins, does with two legs what Drake is unable to do with his remaining one. The kiln is burning hot in the late summer’s heavy heat. Beads of sweat ooze from furrowed brown brows. Drake mouths words to himself, asks Simkins to speed up or slow down by what his hands feel. In between throwing, shaping, and pedaling, the men talk of life as it is and perhaps as they wish it could be. Maybe they sing together, some familiar song. Perhaps a sparrow scratching grit in the yard by the open door draws their attention and they watch for a moment, envious of the brown bird’s fortune of freedom. Bird-watching becomes a momentary distraction. The jug is damp, not far removed from its birth as mud dug from a hole in the ground. The wheel stops. They sit in admiring silence. Drake’s heart moves into his head, and perhaps a longer verse than he usually scribes comes to mind: 

This Dave pot will be the rage

The white folks do admire the jugs I makes

I sit I spin sun-up to sun-down

Helpless as a mule to claim a life of my own 

Here I must stay lest they pitch a fit

This pot might see the world one day

But I never will ’cause I have no worth 

without this here red clay 


These words I imagined never appeared on any jug, but I will wager that they were indelibly marked within him, never to be forgotten. 

I’m neither a historian nor a master potter, certainly no mind reader. But I am a poet and a native son of Edgefield. I am a Black man with a family history that intersects David Drake’s by the same muddy red ground trod. No, I don’t claim blood ancestry; but by soil and pine and sweetgum and wild turkey and flowing creek and cotton fields that became a family farm that grew me, I claim close enough kindred-age. I hold a stake deeper than almost anyone who buys (or steals) a jug can claim. I have no way of knowing whether my ancestors’ paths and David Drake’s ever crossed. It is hard to imagine that they didn’t. Certainly, there were pots and jugs they used made by Drake. Could they have read any of the writing on the inscribed pots they heard about? Was there some curiosity about how this Black man had the temerity to cast words out like seeds of disobedience, even as most would be whipped or worse for even thinking about it? I would like to think that the long line of Black Lanhams took it as inspiration and a coded dare to do better and be better than their condition dictated. I think about all of this as I hold an Edgefield pottery jug that has been in my family for as long as I can remember. There’s no poetry or name scratched in the faceless surface to make it a definitive David Drake, just a hole that, rumor has it, my brother created with a BB gun when it sat on my grandmother’s back porch. It is large enough for me to embrace with a hug, and I feel something I don’t believe the covetous collector ever will. We’ve known it’s worth a great deal of money but never thought of selling it. I’m currently the second poet laureate of Edgefield, trying to become its third. I’m not seeking an extended term; but I am seeking first poet laureate status for David Drake. Laurel Blossom, an extraordinary poet and the first laureate of the county, agrees that we both stand on the shoulders of this extraordinary man. At my installation in 2018 near the town square, within sight of Strom Thurmond’s bronze statue and a store whose sign read “W. E. Lynch,” I read a poem dedicated to David Drake. I’m thinking now that Drake deserves premier status, not just in Edgefield but the state. He would displace into second position Archibald Rutledge, a man whose hold on the “Old South” and “…times not forgotten…,” endeared him to a certain crowd. 

Being a Black man from Edgefield, like David Drake, there is a kinship of clay that I feel obliged to protect. For all the collecting and curation, there’s something missing from the exhibitions and well-lit cases in big cities. The glaze still glows on the jugs, and those adorned with faces grimace or smile or frown, but who’s truly listening to what they’re saying or what the ancestors meant for us to feel? Absent from the installations is the clay under fingernails and palms, stained mud red. The connection to real lives sentenced to hard labor dulls in the fluorescence. The cold ceramic forms sit for admiration, but misery had its turn in past and present objectified inspection. As jug values at auction grow, I wonder if the folks bidding think of the irony of what’s going on? “Sold!” Comes the auctioneer’s final call. I hear in that declaration’s echoes more than the price paid for a jug.

Reprinted from the Spring-Summer 2023 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2023 by J. Drew Lanham.