Dangerous Words: Reflections on Dave the Potter

I was at Kindling Words East earlier this year. KW is that wonderful organization that brings writers and illustrators and editors together to speak in community about the work we love. And I got to listen to Bryan Collier talk about Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave–a book that earned him the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. His presentation, weaving his own artist’s journey into the story of how the art for this book came to be, left many in the audience misty-eyed.

9780316107310The genius of the text of Dave the Potter, written by Laban Carrick Hill, lies in its unwavering focus on the clay and the pots and the man who made them. Understandable to children, it nonetheless paints a picture of that most pernicious institution of American history–chattel slavery. Dave’s hands are dry and caked, his fingers chapped, the work unending, with the massive jar threatening to collapse, if not for the attention and skill of the man at the wheel. And yet, more than the massive pots, more than the life of the potter even, was a drive in Dave to add a final touch.

…before the jar
completely hardened,
Dave picked up a stick
and wrote to let us know
that he was here.

I wonder where
is all my relation–
friendship to all
and, every nation

This background from the New York Times review of the book:

Very few slaves could read or write, and those who displayed their knowledge risked punishment. South Carolina took the lead in banning the education of slaves, and in 1834 — the year of Dave’s earliest known poetry in clay — the state severely tightened its antiliteracy statute. Whites who taught slaves to read or write were subject to fines and imprisonment. Slaves caught teaching other slaves were “to be whipped at the discretion of the court, not exceeding 50 lashes.”

The text of the book is clear and simple, while the art is rich, deep, and moody, opening up the history to spiritual dimensions, bringing into the reader’s heart the wide sweep of imagination that led Dave to reflect on his own scattered family and yet settle on friendship, extended far out of his reach, to “every nation.” What a tribute to the triumph of love over hate.

This book is an incredible dance of words and images–the words of a white scholar who has devoted the work of his life to the study of African American history, and the art of an African American illustrator who felt that history in his heart and brought it to the page.

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