Dave the Potter tells the story of an African-American slave, born about 1800 in South Carolina. Much of Dave’s life remains a mystery, but the pottery he created helps tell some of his tale.
Dave lived in a time where slaves were not allowed to be educated, and slaves were punished severely if caught reading or writing. In his home state of South Carolina, an anti-literacy statute was upheld without question and slaves were routinely imprisoned or fined for displaying their knowledge of reading or writing. For many years Dave wrote on his pots, sometimes just the initials of his owner, but also lines of poetry or details about the pot. In 1841, he stopped writing. During this period of more than sixteen years, he was silent, likely because of fear in displaying his knowledge. He began writing again in 1857. Some of his lines include:
I wonder where is all my relation
friendship to all — and, every nation
–August 16, 1857
put every bit all between
surely this Jar will hold 14
–July 12, 1834
The illustrations – the artwork of Bryan Collier – are simply amazing. They convey the dedication and masterful technique of Dave, his strength in creating jars that would hold more than forty gallons, and his attention to detail in creating and inscribing each individual piece of work. The illustrations convey his life as a slave and the nature of the world around him, with slaves picking cotton in the distance, working in the field, shanties, and a corner view of a slaveowners large mansion. The illustrations are thought-provoking and moving. Not surprisingly, Dave the Potter is a 2011 Caldecott Honor Book, as well as the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award.
The story is told in a simple narrative, focusing on the process of creating a pot. The language is poetic and powerful, often with short lines that emphasize words that convey Dave’s craft and artistry while also displaying the world in which he lived, a world of slavery and injustice. Hill references his work as a “magician” who sees something in the dirt and clay that others do not.
Dave’s pottery can be seen today, on display in museums in South Carolina. For more about Dave, you can read information at SCIWAY and University of South Carolina, Aiken
Books for Pairing with Dave the Potter (Picture Books & Novels)
The Listeners by Gloria Whelan
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine
Freedom’s Fruit by William H. Hooks
Chains by Louise Halse Anderson
To Be A Slave by Julius Lester
Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman by Dorothy Sterling
The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
A Picture of Freedom: the Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1859 by Patricia McKissack
What books about slavery and the quest for freedom have you read and enjoyed? Please share!