Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet is writer/illustrator Andrea Chen’s masterful collection of poems, which tell the story of how an enslaved man transformed his craft into protest art.
Dave’s first documentation of ownership occurs in 1818, in a bill of sale such as this:
At, seventeen, he is purchased for the express purpose of using his strength to haul clay from the river to the potter’s cabins where it is transformed into the pottery Edgefield, South Carolina is famous for. But Dave soon becomes skilled at the craft itself, and learns how to fashion beautiful pots which are much in demand for storage. Dave also learns to read and write, and rather than keeping this dangerous secret to himself (it is against the law for slaves to be literate,after all), Dave signs his own name to the pots he creates. Soon, he takes this one step further – he writes lines from poems, witty observations, and riddles as well. The more Dave is cautioned against this dangerous practice the more daring he becomes – his signed pots become his way of challenging Southern society and their embrace of slavery.
Dave’s story is told through a series of poems in the alternating voices of a cast of characters – the owners, the women Dave was married to and then was sold away from, and Dave himself. The poems of the enslaved are especially touching to read; these were people caught in the clutches of a terrible system, one that tore apart helpless families time and time again. Through all the tumult of his life and the times he lived in – secession, Civil War, Reconstruction – Dave turns to his art as a means of survival and self expression. In the poem, “Etched in Clay,” Dave speaks of his pottery this way:
…I am not afraid
to write on a jar
and fire it hot
so my word
can never be erased.
And if some day
this jar cracks,
my word will stay,
etched in the shards.”
Cheng’s beautiful woodcuts are powerful visuals, as well:
Ironically, fittingly, Dave’s pottery are treasured items today, sought after for museums and galleries. His signature can be seen clearly in each – defiant through the ages:
Here is an interview with the author by Rob Neufeld, whose book Carolina Clay is an investigation into the life and times of Dave, his pottery, and the difficult task of tracking down the histories of those that were enslaved:
And here is potter Steve Ferrell of Old Edgefield Pottery, where Dave crafted so many of his treasures, recounting his life and work :