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Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

2011 ALA Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award: Dave the Potter

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave
Written by Laban Carrick Hill; Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Little Brown, and Company, New York 2010
ISBN 978-0-316-10731-0

Book Review
Dave the Potter, sometimes known as David Drake, was taught to read in South Carolina in the early 19th century, when it was against the law for an enslaved African to be literate. He used his pottery as a vehicle for his literacy, to send his message into the world on the bottom of a pot: sometimes his name, sometimes a few lines of verse. A celebration of the internal strength and dignity that skilled work cultivates and the physical strength required to master the art of making large pots by hand, this book begs to be touched, explored, examined; its beauty suggests it should be handled as gently as Dave’s hands directed the spinning clay on his wheel and yet its message is a solid and strong as Dave’s tremendous arms, adept at building pots that held forty pounds of wheat or dried meat when few other hands, black or white, were capable of such feats. One wants to hold the book close to the chest, like a treasure, to read the illustrations as closely as the words, and yet the book calls out to be read aloud, to be experienced in the companionship of others who will marvel at the pacing of Hill’s verse, the intricate layers of Collier’s multimedia collage illustrations, and the careful process by which Dave himself took handfuls of dirt and transformed them into masterfully- made clay pots. With this nonfiction picture book, Hill and Collier have carefully carried Dave’s messages to a broader audience than those who once used his pots to hold their provisions and the art collectors in historic homes and museums who have long noted his work. In the process, they have transformed the very genre of the nonfiction picture book, making each page hum and sing in a fusion of words and images, much like Dave’s pots transformed the expectations of how much pots can hold, the likes of which few have seen.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Grades 2 -4
  • Skilled Crafts. Dave the Potter was a master craftsman. Using some of the online sources below, share photos with your students of Dave’s pottery, and watch the video footage of Charles Smith working a potter’s wheel. Invite a local potter to come into the class to demonstrate his/her skills, and team up with the art teacher to have students create handmade pots. How much can their pots hold? Have them weigh grains of rice and see how much can fit in their pots. Next, have students try to lift 40 pounds of rice, and imagine how big Dave’s pots really were. 
  • Hand Made Objects vs. Store Bought. Dave the Potter teaches us a great deal about the work required to transform dirt into functional works of art. Before the Industrial Revolution, people had to make everything they needed by hand: clothes, tools, pots, furniture, etc. Have students look around the classroom and locate objects that may have been made by hand. Have students follow the same process at home, asking parents and guardians if they have anything they know was made by hand. Is it a special object for the family? Why or why not? How are handmade objects, whether made by someone in the family, purchased, or given as gifts, treated differently, perhaps, than others? 
Grades 3-8
  • Illustrator Study: Collage and Symbolism. Discuss the ways in which Bryan Collier embedded images of African-American history within his illustrations for Dave the Potter. Next, have students read a variety of fiction and nonfiction picture books illustrated by Collier. What are some of the media he uses in his collage-style illustrations? How has he used color, value, perspective, and line and shape to create complex layers of images, ripe for exploration and interpretation? Have students select a moment in your community’s history to illustrate in Collier’s style. Collier’s webpage, listed in the Further Explorations section below, will also be useful to you.

Grades 5-8

  • Functional to Symbolic Objects. Dave built pots that people needed. Now, his work is understood in a larger capacity. Not only was he a skilled craftsman, but he learned this trade at a time when few enslaved Africans did. His work is in museums not only because of his skills, but because of his unique legacy as a literate, skilled, enslaved African-American craftsman. What are some examples of other handmade objects in the African American community, such as quilts, or from the students’ own cultural heritages, that originally served a functional purpose but now play an important role historically or have taken on a symbolic value in homes, houses of worship, universities, libraries, and museums?
  • Skilled Work and Slavery. To what extent were enslaved Africans in colonial and antebellum periods of American history taught to do skilled work? To what extent have students been educated to understand the variety of roles that African-Americans played in the social and economic life of pre-Civil War America? Explore some of the books listed in the Further Explorations section below to find out more.

Critical Literacy

  • Notions of Literacy. When Dave was alive, to be literate was to be able to sign your own name, and to have a working knowledge of sounds and letters to be able to read simple written works. How has our notion of literacy changed over time? What does it mean to be literate in the 21st century? Use this book as an introduction to notions of literacy and have students define what they believe will be the necessary skills to be literate when they are working adults.
  • Forensic Anthropology and Enslaved Africans. Most enslaved Africans were, unlike Dave, illiterate, and they were not able to write down their stories. Some stories survive through oral histories, spirituals, and family tales; others were recorded through interviews. Modern technology and forensic science are now offering other ways of learning about people who did not leave a written record. Explore some of the online and book resources below that demonstrate how the skeletons and bones of enslaved Africans of the 17th-19th centuries are telling us more about their everyday lives than we previously knew. Ask your students to consider whether or not they are comfortable with this kind of research? Should bodies be left alone, to rest in peace? What should be done to commemorate bodies previously left to rest in unmarked graves? What do we owe these citizens of our past?
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Author Laban Carrick Hill’s Website
Illustrator Bryan Collier’s Website

Leonard Todd’s Website, Biographer of Dave the Potter

Dave the Potter Biography and Samples of Pottery

Dave the Potter Exhibit Information

David Drake’s Pottery at Philadelphia Museum of Art with Great Audio Files

American Art Pottery Association: Links to US Museums with Pottery Collections

National Humanities Center: Teacher Resources on Teaching About Slavery

Slavery and the Making of America: PBS Online Resources

Museum of African American History, Boston

African American Burial Ground, New York City

Fortune’s Story: Slavery in Connecticut

Fortune’s Bones NPR Story

Written in Bone: Forensic Anthropology, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Charles Smith: Alabama-Based Potter

Charles Smith: You Tube Demonstration of Pottery Wheel

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture, Charlotte, NC

Digital Schomburg: Online Exhibitions of the Schomburg Center of The New York Public Library
Hansen, J. and McGowan, G. (1998). Breaking ground, breaking silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground. New York:  Henry Holt and Company.
  • Hansen and McGowan chronicle the discovery of a colonial-era African-American burial ground in lower Manhattan and its aftermath, including the activism required to transform a modern-day construction site into hallowed ground, a National Monument dedicated to enslaved and free blacks.
McGill, Alice. (2000).Miles’ song. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Like Dave, Miles, the protagonist of this historical novel set in 1851, is secretly taught to read, and uses his new understandings of language and literacy to navigate his various roles on a Carolina plantation and escape to freedom.
McKissack, P. and McKissack, F. (1999). Black hands, white sails: The story of African-American whalers. New York: Scholastic.
  • Providing a history of the skilled free African-American seamen in New England, this text highlights in particular the success of the black whaling communities in New Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts.
McKissack, P. and McKissack, F. (1998). Let my people go: Bible stories told by a freeman of color to his daughter, Charlotte, in Charlestown, South Carolina, 1806-1816. Illus. by J. Ransome.  New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
  • This work of collected short stories uses the frame of a fictional father retelling Bible stories to his daughter within the context of everyday life for enslaved Africans in South Carolina in the early 19thcentury, when Dave was a young child.
Nelson, M. (2004). Fortune’s bones: The manumission requiem.  Asheville, NC:  Front Street.
  • Through poetry, photographs, and illustrations, this picture book biography tells of Fortune, an 18thcentury enslaved African in Connecticut . Owned even beyond his death, Fortune’s skeleton was used first by his doctor owner, to teach medical students, and next, by a local history museum. Forensic research has allowed for Fortune’s bones to continue informing the world about his life.
Rappaport, D. (2006). No more! Stories and songs of slave resistance. Illus. by S. Evans. Cambridge: Candlewick Press.
  • This collective biography of enslaved Africans, like Dave the Potter, demonstrates how many defied convention and found ways to resist slavery both large and small.
Walker, S. (2010). Written in bone: Buried lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.
  • Rooted in research currently featured at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, this book demonstrates how research teams are examining colonial era bodies in the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia, using their bones to learn more about life for enslaved and free Africans and African-Americans and free and indentured white colonists.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.