After our discussion of Dave the Potter on this blog a few weeks ago, I received an email from Laban Carrick Hill, the book’s author, who had been silently following the discussion. I asked if I could share his thoughts here and he graciously agreed. Here’s his email.
I’ve been reading the comments on your blog, and it makes me wonder why you haven’t asked me about my whiteness and my relation to Dave’s story. This is a question I’ve been getting since I published Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps it boils down to Ralph Ellison’s quote, “Whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.” I talk about this a little on my website in a short essay under the Harlem Stomp! page. Also, there’s a reason I did not talk about slavery in the text. I’ve spoken about this numerous times including an interview with School Library Journal. First, I did not believe I could capture the trauma and victimization in a picture book and also focus on Dave as a poet and a potter. I know I tried in my 35+ drafts of the poem that eventually ended up being in the book. I also felt that in order to address slavery in this picture book I would have needed to supply a lot of additional material. So in terms of Dave being a slave, I felt that that could be addressed outside of the book with the book providing an entry way with a story of a slave who transcended slavery. Essentially, my goal in writing about African American culture and history is to focus, first, on empowerment and transcendence and, second, on how essential African American identity, culture and history are to American identity, culture, and history. In order for me to understand myself as an American, once of the first places I need to look is African American culture. These are the stories I am trying to tell. The horrific story of African Americans in America has been told exceedingly well over and over again. I don’t think I can add to it or tell that story any better than it has already been told. At the same time, the story of how African American culture has shaped America is an extraordinary one that often gets placed second to the narrative of suffering and injustice. When I think about telling stories to young children, I think the primary narrative of African American history should be equally one of victimhood and empowerment. Where I can make a contribution is with the second. This is also why I chose to write about DJ Kool Herc who is one of my heroes.
When I think of Dave, I think of a great American poet and potter who published his poems on the sides of his pots because he had not other choice. Yes, he was a slave and lived under the brutality of the unjust institution, but what he is remembered for is his pots and his poems first. I gave an interview about my book to School Library Journal in 2010. I am attaching a copy of that interview in this email.
It is interesting that the issue of my whiteness has hardly come up in relation to my book on Dave. It came up often in relation to Harlem Stomp, so much so that I would address my whiteness at the beginning of every talk I gave. But with Dave the Potter, it has not been an issue at all from what I can tell. Like with Harlem Stomp! I have been invited all over the US to work with children, give talks at libraries, schools and museums. I just returned from a series of events featuring Dave the Potter with hundreds of Milwaukee inner city school children that was sponsored by Sam’s Hope Literacy Foundation, the Milwaukee Bucks, and Chipstone Foundation. Last year the Columbia, SC, school system chose Dave the Potter to be the book of the year and gave 3,000 copies of Dave the Potter to elementary school children and had a week of celebration of Dave and his legacy.
I hope this helps put things in context in terms of how I view Dave.
Of course, what you all didn’t see on this blog was our in-class discussion, and particularly a group project presentation on the question, “Who Should Tell the Stories?” When we broke out into small groups for book discussion later in the class, one white student in the group I was sitting with expressed concern that Hill’s text didn’t explore slavery itself more explicitly. But an African American student pointed out that Hill’s whiteness perhaps colored his experience of Dave’s story and she thought it was fine that he explored Dave from his own context, in particular as a poet who wonders about this rather mysterious but surely admirable man. My take is that all writers — and perhaps poets in particular — approach their subjects as only they can, via the life they have lived up to that point which has somehow brought them to want to explore the topic of the book they are writing.
Our class is over now, but I hope some of my students — and others of you out there — will have a response to this topic. And if you want to read more about issues of race in children’s books, there is plenty on this site, starting here.