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Drake, Double-handled jug
- In the 19th century, the Edgefield District of South Carolina was home to ceramic manufactories that produced large numbers of utilitarian wares out of the abundant local clay. These manufactories, or potteries, were part of the industrial slavery complex in the United States (as opposed to that of agricultural slavery). Enslaved laborers would dig, transport, and prepare clay for the production of commercially sold vessels. Some of the enslaved workers were also trained as potters who built, glazed, and fired vessels.
- David Drake was one of these artisans. His work is known today because he signed some of his pieces. He also inscribed short poetic couplets or phrases on a number of his vessels, addressing serious as well as humorous topics.
- David Drake was an accomplished potter and writer. His ceramic wares display skill in using a pottery wheel, attention to symmetry and overall form, and sensitivity in the application of alkaline glazes to create rich, glossy surfaces. His poetry reflects a grasp of language that allowed for wit and playfulness as well as poignancy and subtle critique.
- Anti-literacy laws enacted in South Carolina and throughout the South in the 18th century were instituted specifically to restrict enslaved people. In the early 19th century, the laws became stricter and eventually came to impact both free and enslaved Black people alike as whites grew more and more fearful in the wake of slave uprisings. In this context, David Drake’s choice to publicly display his literacy through writing on his ceramics was a courageous act of defiance.
Jill B. Koverman, I Made This Jar: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter, Dave (McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina, 1998).
Leonard Todd, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). (Note: Leonard Todd’s ancestors were among Drake’s enslavers and some scholars have suggested that his book portrays them too sympathetically.)
More to think about
Consider some of the questions that art museums, which have been more rapidly acquiring and displaying vessels by David Drake in recent years, are grappling with:
- How do we balance appreciation of the artistry of this work with the history that it represents? How do we account for our own biases in exploring this question?
- What does it mean for museums to acquire, interpret, and exhibit a work by an enslaved person who did not receive financial compensation for their labor?
- Who benefits from the purchase and display of these works in museums? (Note: as of winter, 2022, the living descendants of David Drake have not received or requested any funds from the sale of his works to museums.)