the incredible Drake that hasn't already been said—to much acclaim, we might note, by Leonard Todd, and also by folk and decorative arts scholars like those who contributed to I Made This Jar: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter Dave—but maybe this posting can get get you to check out what they and others have written so far. (Be sure to also pick up Laban Carrick Hill's award-winning "picturebook poem" Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.) Born around the year 1800, Drake was a talented, enslaved South Carolina ceramicist who, in addition to frequently signing his name "Dave," also inscribed his pots with short poems—a remarkable and daring move at a time when slave literacy was illegal and when South Carolina was enacting particularly harsh laws punishing slaves who read or wrote. (Here's a collection of Dave's extant verses.) We here at P&PC are particularly taken with the two-line poem on the jar featured in the "American Stories" exhibition, the last one Dave inscribed in 1862 before emancipation:
I—made this Jar all of cross
If you don't repent, you will be lost.
George Moses Horton, also from South Carolina, has gotten more ink.) Most people—those not particularly trained in the mysterious and magical ways of literary critics—read Dave's poems as biographical markers or as small windows onto slave life. That is, they read the poems as informational pieces, rather than as the valuable literary or poetic pieces of art they are. And when we say they're valuable, we're not joking. The Smithsonian paid something like $40,000 for its jar, and we bet that other major museums like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, both of which have Dave's pots in their collections, ponied up similar sums.
the case of the $400,000,000 poem?—and a $40,000 jar starts raising a number of such questions. How much of that $40,000 can be attributed to the poem, for example, and how much to the jar? In other words, if the poem weren't on the jar, how much would the jar sell for, and is the difference between that and $40,000 one way of figuring out the "value added" contribution of Dave's poem? We don't think that would be a horrible approach, though we will admit that, minus the jar, the poem itself probably wouldn't sell for much, so the poetic value and the ceramic value reinforce one another. But we also think that a $40,000 price tag on a jar produced by an enslaved poet-potter should also raise the larger and less theoretical question as to who is continuing to profit off of Dave's uncompensated labor? Dave didn't see a dime from his pots when he made them, of course, let alone the cool $40 G's that the Smithsonian's pot-poem went on to fetch. And the poem-pot wasn't returned to him after emancipation to sell or otherwise do with as he wished.