Three years ago, an exhibit at the National Museum of African-American History made Tara Roberts drop everything – literally everything, like quit her job “everything.” And it was all because of one exhibit. The past 400 years of American history are uncomfortable to say the absolute least, especially for Black people, says Roberts. So much of it is about slavery and its aftermath, the pain and suffering that Black people endured to pointless hate and bigotry. And the first floor of the Blacksonian, as Roberts lovingly calls it, is about that vast, lengthy era of America’s short life.
But, on the second floor of the museum, a framed photo of scuba divers drew Roberts in. The photograph was of mostly Black women of all ages on a boat in wetsuits, hugging an older Black man, laughing and smiling. She learned that they were part of an organization called Diving With A Purpose, a group of Black scuba divers searching for the lost shipwrecks that carried captured and kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.
That is what made Roberts drop everything, including quitting her job, to dedicate her life to telling the stories about these divers’ work, finding and documenting these ships. And “Into the Depths” is what she has learned and discovered not just about the people on those ships, but about herself and her history. As she says in her introduction, studying these shipwrecks was a way for Roberts to discover and understand her roots, her family’s roots, and where she and other Black Americans belong in the fabric of time, history, and America.
“Into the Depths” is a new podcast from National Geographic and will have six chapters. Episodes that have already been released are around 30 minutes each. Along with expanding the historical record and honoring the estimated 1.8 million Africans who were kidnapped and perished at sea, Tara speaks with friends, family, spiritual advisers, and even a poet to tell these ancestral histories.
With fellow National Geographic Explorer and poet Alyea Pierce, Roberts comes to terms with what these shipwrecks mean to history, society, and what they mean to her personally. With the help of Pierce, who serves as a sort of sounding board, someone to provide the proper words to make sense of the senseless, they give the captive Africans their voices back and speak their names. They picture the journeys that enslaved Africans took on these ships and speak about the return of lost souls to their homeland.
Hear the history of the British Henrietta Marie, a colonial slave ship that was wrecked off the coast of Florida in 1700. Before its sinking, the ship sailed the triangular trade route, transporting 274 trafficked Africans to the West Indies. Roberts learns about the legendary diver Doc Jones, who famously placed an underwater memorial at the wreck site of the Henrietta Marie. The plaque faces the African shore, thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and reads “In memory and recognition of the courage, pain and suffering of enslaved African people. Speak her name and gently touch the souls of our ancestors.”
In the second episode, Roberts meets Ken Stewart, the founder of DWP, and is inspired by his two-decade-long mission to find the Spanish pirate ship Guerrero, wrecked in 1827. She begins to train with the organization, learning how to find and map shipwrecks with them.
“Into the Depths” is a mixture of Roberts experience in Diving With a Purpose, a history lesson on America’s greatest failure, and a deeply moving initiative. Most poignantly, “Into the Depths” is Roberts desire to find more in history than pain and trauma alone.