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  • The Concatenate Poetics of Slavery and the Articulate Material of Dave the Potter
  • Michael A. Chaney (bio)

“traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.”

—Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller” (1936)

As the foundation for an economic order based on flexible accumulation and agrarian capitalism, the antebellum slave occupied a pivotal if dichotomous role. Politically mute but commercially hypervisible, even the slave artisan whom W. E. B. Du Bois called the “quasi-slave” remains voiceless in the archive (177–79).1 Yet to discern an exception comes as no surprise. Dave the Potter, an antebellum exemplar of African American exceptionalism, nearly approximates the utopian disconnect from chattel status that Du Bois imagined the skilled, wage-earning quasi-slave to enjoy over field hands. But it is not disconnection that Dave the Potter’s astonishing expressivity seeks. Rather, in its fusion of literacy and materiality, the work of Dave the Potter aspires to a solidity of author and text that always disappears.

Some folklorists refer to David Drake (ca. 1800–1874) as Dave of the Hive, since he worked for the newspaper The Hive, where Abner Landrum presumably taught him literacy before he was sold to Lewis Miles, a pottery works owner in the Edgefield district of South Carolina.2 Beyond these apocryphal points of biography, three salient facts anchor Dave the Potter’s exceptionality: first, his writing was a public affair, vaunted by the same slave-owning class that so vehemently prohibited slave literacy; second, he became such a skillful turner of clay that his vessels are among the largest recorded of the era; and third, he signed and dated his ceramics (Fig. 1), even incising anecdotal writing onto their walls.

Characterized by phonetic spelling and irregular capitalization, many of these inscriptions are dedicational (“this Jar is to Mr Segler . . .” of 1858 or “for Mr. John monday” of 1857); others are self-reflexive, announcing the vessel’s purpose for storing meats (“Great & Noble Jar/hold Sheep goat or bear” from 1859). A few moralize about feeling “the need of—Grace” (1858) in keeping with the evangelizing rhetoric of most inscribed craftworks of the period from quilts to plateware. Others combine materialist braggadocio and the proverb to muster such unexpected pronouncements as “Cash Wanted” (1852) and “I made this Jar = for cash—/though its called = lucre Trash //” (1857, with equal signs, dash, and double back slashes in the original inscription). Many of these messages are signed (“Dave”) beneath the inscription, indicating the writing to be worthy of acknowledgement, and most are clearly formulated as heroic couplets. Few scholars of American or African American literature, however, address them as literature.3 In the following analysis, I will explore the ways in which Dave the Potter’s hybrid assemblages of material and literary expression complicate our understanding of slave authorship. Central to this investigation is the interplay of the signature and the inscriptive practices that help to call forth and call away the subject that the signature endeavors to name.

My own designation of that subject throughout this essay—Dave the Potter rather than David Drake—registers respect for the manner in which the texts explored here were originally signed, as well as skepticism for the hegemonic effects of ascribing an exceptional singularity to that figure.4 Whatever we call the author, we must likewise be cautious when naming the text, lest the poetry overshadow the pottery or vice versa. Both clay and its embellishing marks work together, and [End Page 607] sometimes against each other, to produce a combinatory articulation in which words, names, dates, bases, apertures, walls, necks, handles, surfaces, and markings come together to reject the separation of one part from the other. The term that Dave the Potter seems to have preferred for this trope of convergence is “catination” or “concatination,” two of his earliest inscriptions. In its arresting vocality and refusal of anatomization, Dave the Potter’s aesthetic exemplifies a tactic of transatlantic, nineteenth-century theatricality that Daphne Brooks refers to as “spectacular opacity”: “opaque performances of marginalized cultural figures [that] call attention to the skill of the performer who, through gestures and speech as well as...