I wonder where is all my relation friendship to all and every nation
—Dave the Potter
The survival of “Dave the Potter’s” story in South Carolina reminds us of just how complex the delusion of slavery as an innocuous vestige of a “romantic way of life” can be. It is quite likely that for many defenders and apologists of slavery, those who hail from places like Dave’s home of Edgefield, South Carolina, where the defense of slavery was a generational and defining ethic and tradition, that the figure of “Dave the Potter” was ample evidence that the enslaved were not always the victims of violence, dehumanization, and cruelty. Instead, in this narrative of historical endearment, they were part of the fabric of the South and members of a shared community. Dave was valued, they said. Dave was celebrated for his art. Dave was coveted. Dave enjoyed certain liberties not afforded to many enslaved people. And Dave was an artist who was allowed to make art that was sought after by white society.
The obscenity of this thinking should be obvious enough. But the fact is that it makes an assumption about this man, about his ability—against all odds—to make art and to demand that he be acknowledged for that art. There is in the biography of Dave the Potter a hopeful narrative—not because it speaks to an oxymoronic “humane slave society,” but because it symbolizes a singular moment of defiance, a profound resistance to erasure. We know of Dave the Potter not because he was a great artisan. We know him because he recognized that the society in which he lived, and in which his race was denied both presence and value, required that he signal his presence with a small gesture, the signing of his art.
Dave the Potter was not the only enslaved ceramicist in South Carolina. We know that Black iron workers, builders, architects, and skilled artisans of all sorts existed. Yet Dave the Potter stands out because by signing his work, he was waging a quiet attack on the far-reaching implications of ownership that defined slavery. He was saying, “I made this,” which was psychically akin to saying, “I own this.” And more grandly he was saying, “Remember me.”
Dave Drake was owned. His art was owned. Anything he produced, including children, urns, jugs, and glazed ceramic pieces, were owned by those who owned him. Dave the Potter sought to wrench himself from this ownership by an act of remarkable defiance.
When Dave the Potter was born, around 1800, literacy for the enslaved was illegal. Yet, Dave the Potter wrote inscriptions on his pottery, and he signed his name. He not only defied the law, but he sealed this in art. In “stealing away” the complete power that South Carolina law asserted, he negated their power of erasure.
One suspects that Dave the Potter survived these acts because of the patronage of his owners and others. Patronage—permission, if you will—is the currency of slavery, the troubling action of benevolence that benefits the benefactor. When Phillis Wheatley was published and allowed to write, she was granted the permission—as is the nature of patronage. Her owners emerged as the benevolent ones, the ones responsible for her talent. It was this feature of patronage that troubled the lives of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes; they struggled with it while producing work despite it. Dave the Potter’s life and work remind us of the cost of making art, and the implications of the “permission” that we are given to make art. But Dave the Potter’s sense of irony and his defiance against this patron- age emerge in his poems.
During the periods when, apparently, Dave the Potter produced no art, it was because he was enslaved by those who did not give him permission to do so. If Dave the Potter lost his leg, it is as likely because of some infraction of slave law as it was because, as the convenient story goes, that he laid down on a railroad track, inebriated, and was run over. When he did make art, it was because owners made it possible for him—they gave him permission. Dave the Potter never stopped being an artist, but the constraints of his human condition, dictated by a country that regarded him as of little value, limited his freedom to make art. Dave the Potter’s work exists not as a sign of resilience but as a sign of just how many things created and imagined by the enslaved have not been passed on to us, have been erased, have been prevented from even happening. Art does not persist, not always. The capacity to make art can be squelched and destroyed. A civilization can be deprived of its opportunity to produce great art. And this is the great tragedy of slavery. It constrained the value of Black intelligence to labor only, to the use of Black bodies for just that alone. America failed itself by failing to value the fullness of who enslaved people were.
Dave the Potter’s fragments are slivers of this genius, and for this we have to be grateful. For those of us with the opportunity to restore what has been erased, he is a gift, a promise; every piece of ceramic work that has survived represents this possibility, this hope. They exist in museums and galleries and in collectors’ homes. Yet there is no indication that ownership of his work, the very thing his signature was meant to assert, is something any of his descendants have inherited
Yet, the Potter Dave is witty: “Dave belongs to Mr. Miles,” he incised on a pot. He reminds us that he knows what slavery means when he declares that his pots are owned by those who own him and who control the means for his labor.
We come to Dave the Potter fully aware that in his existence and in his function as an ancestor for Black artists, he reminds us of just how challenging and unsettling the issue of race is today. The economy of race is a conundrum for Black artists, one that we struggle with and end up feeling compromised by, one we wish to defy as we break its stranglehold. It is the conundrum that brought Zora Neale Hurston to that emotionally and psychically charged place from which to declare: “I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background. For instance at Barnard. ‘Beside the waters of the Hudson’ I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself.”1 Hurston believes in a self, but she knows that she is multiselved, and that sometimes the self betrays itself. What Dave the Potter keeps us doing is “feeling our race.” Dave’s circumstances resonate in Langston Hughes’s words: “So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange un-whiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”2 For Hughes, Dave the Potter would be the great artist who is not afraid to be himself because Dave the Potter is never allowed to be anything else but himself. It is this wrestling that makes Toni Morrison bristle at the suggestion by white critics that her art will not be great enough, or American enough, if she does not finally write about white people—or said an- other way, until she stops writing about only Black people. I could go on and on talking about what it means for Black artists to negotiate their art in a white space that Hughes describes as “American standardization”; and while he does not spell this out, he knows it means the white American economy, the white American value system, and the white American culture, where galleries owned by whites have to endorse Black art, where fellowships and awards have to be given to Black artists by white individuals and institutions, and where Dave the Potter’s work is lauded and praised by white people who own it and who, in a sense, continue to make demands on the meaning of this work.
And, in the end, this is why this project is so beautiful and important. For Jonathan Green, “Sir Dave” is part of a multitude of Black people filled with spiritual power and invention, filled with the capacity to create and re-create, filled with the genius of revelation and intuition and philosophical force, filled also with the capacity to remember. And this army has always been at the fore of his imagination because he grew up in a culture that protected this understanding and that guided him to connect through the lineage of ritual and tradition to his ancestry, to his African beginnings. This is what he celebrates in paintings that wrench Sir Dave from the clutches of American standardization.
And for Glenis Redmond, Dave is the poet voice, keeping in the crafty archival space of the engraving on clay and sealed in glaze that reminds her of the voices of her ancestry—our ancestry, preserved through song, through story, through the work of their hands, and carried to her, saying that this is her inheritance, her legacy, and in this, Dave the Potter reminds her that her song is part of a long and moving chorus of song. We, Black artists, are all searching for precedence, for the evidence that we did not spring up without roots, without an army of holy witnesses, and her poems celebrate this connection.
If I seem to be suggesting that all of this is straightforward and self-assured, then I have failed. I am saying that we can see in Redmond and Green a full understanding that they too have suffered, as we Black artists all have, from the very same thing that Dave the Potter suffered—the need to somehow see the shackles that sought to silence and erase him, and further, to find imaginative ways to defy those shackles, to find a way to speak and to say “I am here.”
Gabrielle Foreman, Lynnette Young Overby, and Evie Shockley have added their songs to this cultural anchoring, their songs that collect this deep spirit, this deep understanding of what Dave the Potter means to Black artists. Foreman’s brilliant excavation of meaning and her deep dive into the appreciation of what we have left to us in the scattering of history bring together fragments of meaning in Dave the Potter’s life and art in a splendid anthem of prayer and praise. Here the lead voice has heard all the requests from the mouths of the congregants and then has allowed her antennae to pick up the waves of unspoken prayers, those groanings too deep for words, so that her own praise is a true gathering for this book.
This is why I have been drawn to Green’s titling of one of his Sir Dave paintings, Vessels for Taking Us Home. This book, these praise songs, even, these are all the vessels that will transport us into the Black imaginary, the African imaginary. And this strikes me as tragically and righteously good. I have never laid a hand on one of David Drake’s jars. I have never traced the contours of their making. I have never had the chance to ritualize the connection between the residue of his genius and my own self, my own body. One day, I hope to do so. But it pleases me that these sacred vessels are there. And until then, I offer this foreword and this poem as rimings, as echoes, as harmonious stretches of song.
Reprinted from Praise Songs for Dave the Potter: Art and Poetry for David Drake, edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman. Copyright © 2023 Kwame Dawes. Reprinted with permission of University of Georgia Press.