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History of the African- American Face Jug
Some many years ago while attending a gathering after a family funeral, I found myself intrigued by a conversation between my father and some elder family members. They were talking about something called face jugs and how they related to our family history.
This is the African-American face-jug oral history as it was passed down in my family, the McDowell-Poston family. My father, James T. McDowell, Sr., told me the story as he received it from his father, Boyce McDowell, who was a tombstone maker in Gaffney, South Carolina, and he got it from his father, my great-grandfather who lived during slavery times.
Slaves were not allowed to have tombstones, they said, so sometimes pottery or even a face jug served as their grave markers. My great-great-great-great Aunt Evangeline was a village slave potter in Jamaica. She made face jugs, too. The story handed down from Evangeline was that slaves placed personal items on their loved ones' graves along with face jugs. The ugly face on the jug evolved something like this: Slaves from Africa revered their ancestors and participated in ancestor honoring, or what we might call ancestor worship. African slaves were taken to the Caribbean to be acclimated and there they picked up the religion of voodoo.
Eventually ancestor worship, voodoo, and Christianity amalgamated into the tradition of the face jug. Many slaves who came to this country converted to Christianity and acquired a belief in the devil. They combined all their beliefs and came up with the ugly face jug. Apparently it had to be ugly enough to scare the devil away from your grave so your soul could go to heaven. When he was still living, my father gave me a face jug he acquired on a trip to Jamaica many decades ago. It is crudely made with rough features and I treasure it.
Some researchers from the Smithsonian contacted me once to see if I could add anything to their studies of face jugs. They told me of meeting an old black farmer in the South who took them out into a field believed to be a slave burial ground. He showed them shards of pottery and what looked like face jug remnants in the earth.
This topic has no written history, but the oral tradition in my family, along with other information I've gleaned, is my inspiration for the face jugs I create. I put a cigar in the mouths of some face jugs. Slaves were not allowed to smoke so the cigar signifies defiance, the man who does not consider himself a "boy," and of course delivers, symbolically, a strong epithet to the slaveholder. I remember all of these things when making a face jug. I add stained glass to some of the jugs so that when they are fired it streams down like tears.
When I started making face jugs more than 20 years ago I heard about Slave Potter Dave from Edgefield,South Carolina, who could read and write and I was drawn to his story. Dave was owned by publishers of a newspaper. In the face of adversity and under the risk of severe punishment, this slave potter created jugs with rebellious sayings on them. Although there are no accounts that he ever made face jugs, I wanted to honor this courageous man and keep the tradition and spirit of Slave Potter Dave alive by writing messages on my jugs as Dave had done.
I make face jugs to pay homage to my ancestors, those who survived the Middle Passage.
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"Filling the Gap" A film about little known accomplishments of those enslaved, Jim McDowell plays the role of the literate slave potter known as Dave who lived in Edgefield, SC in the 1800s.
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