Slave Pottery Gave Voice to Poetry

Posted July 14, 2010 at 3:56pm

David Drake never reaped the rewards of his prodigious pottery skills. Drake, commonly known as just Dave, was a 19th-century slave who was born and died in obscurity — and whose pieces now sell for up to $90,000 and appear in the National Museum of American History.

Born around 1800, Drake crafted some 200 pots, ranging from three to 40 gallons, according to American anthropology expert John Vlach, director of George Washington University’s Folklife Program. Slave owners coveted the pots for their immense storage capacity, but what sets them apart for today’s art collectors are the messages Drake engraved upon them, poetic time capsules from a time when blacks were forbidden to read or write.

“Dave did it in public, that’s the amazing thing,” Vlach said. “Because they wanted the pots! If you think about it, it’s a modest form of rebellion. He’s more in charge of his destiny than other people are.”

Slave owners put a high value on large storage containers because, in the days before refrigerators, salting meat in brine was a common form of preservation. “Dave was making the biggest damn pots anyone had ever seen,” Vlach said.

And as Drake inscribed on one: “The great and noble jar/holds sheep goat and [bear].”

Drake’s pottery skills likely persuaded his owners not to punish him for his rhetorical abilities. They did not protect Drake’s family, however, whose sale to a distant plantation may have led him to engrave a pot: “I wonder where is all my relations/Friendship to all and every nation.”

The sad irony of his enslaved talent did not escape him — one of his most famous couplets reads, “Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/where the oven bakes and the pot biles.”

Vlach will discuss Drake’s art and legacy Friday at noon at the National Museum of African Art (950 Independence Ave. SW) as part of its exhibit “Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art” about basket-making through African-American history. The Museum of American History features Drake’s last known dated poem jar, according to curator Bonnie Lilienfeld, which he made in 1862, after emerging from a nearly two-decade lyrical silence. The museum also has a pot made by Drake and another slave in 1859.

Vlach and Lilienfeld say they consider Drake to be the most important potter in the history of the South, and that increased academic interest in the potter has raised a parallel fervor among art collectors and museums.

“You never want to overstate how much freedom a slave would have had,” Lilienfeld said, but Drake’s work shows us that “they weren’t only victimized, that some were able to use their skills to make their lives better for themselves and to express their creativity.”