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Video transcript

(jazzy music) - [Steven] We're in a magnificent gallery at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, surrounded by fine furniture and sparkling white marble. But in the gallery also is this large and very beautiful jug made by an African-American, by an enslaved individual, a man named David Drake. - [Susan] The Edgefield District where this work was produced in South Carolina had a very large population, and it's probably three times as many enslaved persons as white persons living here, but all of them need these functional pottery wares. - [Steven] And the Edgefield District is famous for its ceramics. It's famous for its pottery production. - [Susan] One of the unusual things about the Edgefield District is that these are primarily enslaved artisans who are making these wares. - [Steven] And David Drake is recognized as exceptional not only because of his ability with the wheel, but also because of his inscriptions. David Drake was literate. - [Susan] Until very recently, he was the only known potter to inscribe his works. - [Steven] I think it's hard to understand the level of repression in the early 18th century in a place like South Carolina, where literacy among the enslaved was banned. It was illegal. - [Susan] South Carolina's earliest anti-literacy laws happened in the middle of the 18th century. By the time of the 1820s, it's becoming not only illegal for enslaved people to learn how to read and write, it's becoming problematic for free blacks also. There is an unsuccessful slave uprising. That comes on the heels of a growing abolitionist movement, and it's making South Carolina white people very nervous. They start enacting even stricter anti-literacy laws, both for enslaved and free blacks, and that escalates until the Civil War. At the same time, you have this Great Awakening going on, suggesting that each individual, enslaved or free, is responsible for his own salvation. We have to remember that the owners of David Drake tended to be Baptist, and so the Great Awakening, combined with this Baptist religious preference, allowed many to learn how to read so that they could read the Bible, so that they could achieve their own salvation. At the same time as these rules became increasingly strict, the demonstration of literacy became increasingly problematic, and there were various forms of punishment to curtail efforts at literacy. So the idea that David Drake is inscribing these wares and demonstrating his literacy and that he's doing it precisely as South Carolina is introducing the strictest forms of anti-literacy law is very suggestive of a purpose greater than the mere couplets that he's writing on the wares. - [Steven] But David Drake is not simply able to read and write. He's writing poetry, poetry that rhymes, and he's putting them on pots that are sold publicly. And so we're confronted with the publicness of his literacy, even at a moment when literacy is suppressed. - [Susan] His determination to proclaim that literacy, not just within a close-knit community but in a much broader community of unknown people who might resent and retaliate, is the kind of courage that I find extraordinary. - [Steven] And yet the inscriptions themselves can be quite humorous and lighthearted. Here the inscription reads on one side, "Ladies' and gentlemens' shoes, sell all you can and nothing you'll lose." So there's this lighthearted rhyme, even in the face of this terrible and ugly racism. - [Susan] There's a cleverness to that. In some ways, he's ameliorating the implications of his literacy by lightening the tone of what he's saying. - [Steven] The inscription on the other side gives a date. It gives the owner's name, but it also gives Dave's name. - [Susan] It's the first signed and dated poem jar produced by David Drake. Not only does he write the rhyming couplet, not only does he sign his own name, he also signs Lewis Miles's name, making Lewis Miles almost complicit in this act of literacy. - [Steven] But then if you look closely, you'll notice that he also locates the pot, possibly, in terms of where it was made. - [Susan] Lewis Miles's factory was on Horse Creek, and there is this upside-down U character that looks like a horseshoe. What is possible is that Dave was essentially branding Lewis Miles's wares, becoming what we would consider a lead artisan of a workshop. It's very difficult to understand or to surmise what the relationship was between David Drake and Lewis Miles. There's a general reluctance within the literature and scholarship to in any way suggest a level of accommodation or sympathy between them. And yet it is very interesting that David Drake was most prolific in his literary works when he was under the ownership of Lewis Miles. - [Steven] The pot is large, its got a beautiful, elegant shape, and its got a relatively even glossy glaze that reaches just to the foot, where you can see some of the unglazed surface. - [Susan] It's the scale, the symmetry, the evenness of the gloss, the evenness of the handles. Two-handled jugs were rare. The centrality of the mouth of the jug. All of that speaks to an artist's talent. And I feel like artists are born creative. Each finds his own medium of expression, and sometimes there are limits as to what those opportunities are. And in this case, David Drake makes use of clay. (jazzy music)