Your latest book is a biography told in verse about a 19th-century slave who became an accomplished potter. Where’d the idea come from?
I was listening to NPR, and I heard a review of Carolina Clay [The Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave] by Leonard Todd. I thought, this is just an incredible story. It’s hard for me to know why it affected me so much, but my daughter’s a potter, and I’ve worked with clay all my life. He was a writer and I’m a writer, but I’m not heroic like Dave.
What made him heroic?
He dared to write on pots at a time when he could have been killed for that, and he signed his name. That’s just an amazingly courageous act—and subversive. But it’s also quiet, because he wasn’t saying anything—he was writing it. His ability and his talent gave him that kind of confidence and power, because he knew that if he was killed, who was going to make the 40-gallon jars?
You grew up in Cincinnati during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Did that help draw you to Dave’s story?
Oh, absolutely. I grew up in a neighborhood where I still live, close to downtown Cincinnati, which was predominantly African American at the time. All my friends were African American. We all remember the race riots, which happened about a block away from where we lived. I remember hearing things breaking and being with my African-American friends, and their parents being super-nervous and coming out all the time and telling us to stay on the grass and not to leave the yard.
Not much is known about Dave. How’d you find so many details about him?
It’s funny, I was talking to a friend of mine who writes biographies, and she doesn’t put anything in them that isn’t a fact. My biography really crosses that line and some people may not consider it a biography, which is fine with me.
The Library of Congress calls it a biography.
I couldn’t write the story of Dave without putting in things that I didn’t know he said or anyone else said, because there isn’t any record of that. There isn’t really another way to write the story, because all you have are bills of sale [of slaves] and these cryptic couplets [that he etched] on pots.
Your book feels so incredibly personal.
It’s interesting that you said that. When I worked on this book, I spent a lot of time feeling choked up and I couldn’t talk, or if the phone rang, I choked up.
What touched you the most?
It was the separation, the scenes where people are separated from people they love.
So many children and spouses—including Dave’s—were sold at the drop of a hat, and they never saw one another again.
That’s what really choked me up more than any sort of physical violence.
Do today’s kids understand how dehumanizing slavery is?
In a lot of ways, we’re failing our kids. Just recently, I went to a school to talk to a group of fourth graders, and one asked what I was working on.
I told her a little bit about Dave, and I showed her a slide of the woodcut of him on the auction block that’s in the book, and she said, “You mean he was being sold?” They’d done a whole unit on slavery, but she didn’t know that. And I said, “Yeah, slaves were bought and sold,” and she was stunned. Then she looked at me, and said, “Well, I hope the people that bought him were nice.”
What do you hope kids take away from the book?
I just want kids to realize there are a lot of ways to do what you believe is the right thing to do, and it doesn’t have to be screaming and yelling and fighting, or in any way violent.
There’s a woman who saved my mother during the Holocaust. She was a very quiet person and nobody’s ever heard of her. If I had to pick somebody, she’s the hero of my life. But she did what she did because she thought it was the most ordinary thing to do.
It’s very ordinary to want to write and read and express yourself. But because of the times, Dave couldn’t do that. So he became a quiet hero. If more kids knew about things like that, maybe they’d feel stronger themselves—and they could also do the right thing.