Sensitive, respectful inquiry into the life of a now-famous slave potter.
A successful graphic designer and Southern émigré living in Manhattan, Todd was startled to learn, while reading a New York Times article about an exhibition of pottery made by a slave known only as Dave, that his own ancestors had once owned Dave and the pottery works in which he created his stoneware masterpieces. After a visit to the exhibit in Delaware, equally intrigued by Dave’s skill and his shadowy history, the author relocated to his family’s former hometown of Edgefield, S.C. There he set about trying to unravel the truth about the potter’s life, well aware of the irony inherent in a descendant of Dave’s masters striving to be his biographer. Despite the notorious difficulty of documenting slaves’ genealogies, let alone details about their personal lives, Todd was able to find some interesting shards, literal and figurative, that allowed him to construct a rough idea of what Dave may have experienced. The most compelling feature of Dave’s work is that he frequently signed his name to his pots and even, on occasion, inscribed poems of his own devising. The author spends significant time trying to figure out how Dave acquired this level of literacy, since slaves for much of his lifetime were forbidden to read, much less write, and it would have amounted to a dangerous confession to reveal his learning so openly. This kind of historical work always involves conjecture, and Todd does a fair job disclosing where his research tips over into the realm of imagination. Still, his passionate respect for Dave sometimes supports an unrealistic, idealized portrait of the potter. It’s impossible to know for sure what Dave was like, so this character sketch must remain partly fictional—well-informed, but colored by the legends that have grown up around his magnificent vessels.
Captivating, though necessarily speculative.