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He is known today, as he was then, only as Dave. His jugs and storage jars were everyday items, but because of their beauty and sometimes massive size they are now highly sought after by collectors. Born about 1801, Dave was taught to turn pots in Edgefield, South Carolina, the center of alkaline-glazed pottery production. He also learned to read and write, in spite of South Carolina’s long-standing fear of slave literacy. Even when the state made it a crime to teach a slave to write, Dave signed his pots and inscribed many of them with poems. Though his verses spoke of his daily experience, they were nevertheless powerful statements. He countered the slavery system not by writing word of protest but by daring to write at all.

When Leonard Todd discovered that his family had owned Dave, he moved from Manhattan to Edgefield, where his ancestors had established the first potteries in the area. Todd studied each of Dave’s poems for biographical clues, which he pieced together with local records and family letters to create this chronicle of Dave’s life – a story of creative triumph in the midst of oppression. Many of Dave’s jars are now found in America’s finest museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

This book is a very well-written and researched look into the life of David Drake. Todd uses documented facts written by the participants themselves, and never presents “fill in the blanks” narratives as fact. You can feel his personal connection to Dave as the story unfolds.

Dave was born into slavery and freed after the Civil War. His poetry is often astoundingly beautiful. These inscriptions are timeless messages from the past. This was a man who kept his dignity under the most horrible of conditions.

“Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/

wher the oven bakes & the pot biles”

“I wonder where is all my relation/

friendship to all–and every nation”

“Lm says this handle will crack” – this one refers to his owner, who may have doubted Dave’s ability, although his skill as a potter was certainly recognized during his lifetime. Over 150 years later, the handle still hasn’t cracked.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in American history, the American south, or art pottery. It’s a valuable addition to any work written about David Drake, and a moving look into his life.

5 out of 5 stars – must read

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