By Megan Kirk
For centuries, Black history has been indelibly tied to the foundation of slavery. With stories buried deep within the ancestors, pieces of Black heritage have been lost, until now. National Geographic is helping to tell the stories of Blackness through a podcast, documentary, and magazine layout shedding light on sunken ships that carried the fears, legacy and the hopes of slaves during the era of the Transatlantic slave trade.
“Into the Depths” follows Tara Roberts, who is on a mission to uncover secrets of the past found deep within the sea. She enlists the help of Diving With a Purpose (DWP), a team of Black divers, along with marine archeologists, descendants of shipwrecks, and historians who set out to unearth lost treasures from the Transatlantic slave trade. Hoping to incite a deeper understanding of the slave trade, Roberts hopes it will encourage descendants to discover more about their own heritage while learning the untold stories of the slave trade. Recognizing the hurt some African Americans may feel, the podcast may uncover some feelings felt by many in the Black community.
“My relationship to our past was one of avoidance, I think, and one of fear. It seemed to me that most of the stories that I encountered about Black folks, our past, was centered inside of our pain and inside of our trauma,” said Roberts.
A six-part podcast series, “Into the Depths” sheds new light on the slave trade as the podcast documents Roberts’ journey from Florida to Costa Rica, through Africa and back to her hometown of Edenton, N.C., where one family photo, initially met with disinterest, soon became a source of pride and a deep understanding of her family’s lineage.
“I ended up discovering things about one of my ancestors that I didn’t know. This is an ancestor whose picture hangs on my mother’s wall and has been there for many, many, many years, and I would just often pass by that picture with, I would say at worst, indifference, at best, a mild curiosity,” said Roberts. “Because of this work, because I decided to dig into this history, I found all this stuff out about my great-great grandfather.”
In addition to the podcast, National Geographic has premiered an in-depth documentary detailing the discovery of the only slave shipwreck to be found in America to date. Historically, Clotilda is known as the last ship to transport slaves to the new world. At the bottom of the Mobile River in Alabama, Clotilda is one of just 13 ships discovered that was involved in the global slave trade. Though more than 20,000 ships set sail across the world carrying upwards of 12 million slaves to America, many remain nothing more than a faded memory more than 400 years later. However, Roberts and DWP have begun to do the work to share the untold stories of Black ancestors from beyond the grave and some of the reasoning why Africa was chosen.
“West Africans often lived off of waterways. There are miles and miles of rivers and waterways so they were expert swimmers, canoe-makers, divers, all of that. There is some evidence that points to the fact that maybe some Europeans actually targeted West Africa to enslave people because of their aquatic skills,” said Roberts.
Black History Month is used as a time of true reflection and reaching into the past to discover how far the culture has advanced and how much further it must go. It is also a time for personal discovery in how African Americans and their families fit into the narrative of Black history. National Geographic has found a way to peel back the complex layers of slavery through Roberts and each story told through the podcast.
“’Into the Depths’ is a profound and personal exploration of identity and history as told through the lens of Black scientists and storytellers eager to deepen our understanding of American history,” said David Ardalan, executive producer of Audio for National Geographic.
The podcast also uses the gift of poetry to help drive home a unique emotional connection to the story.
“I’m also excited about people hearing Alyea Pierce, who is a National Geographic explorer and she’s an incredible spoken word artist. We’ve got her doing some poetry throughout [the show],” said Roberts.
More than a podcast, the divers of Diving With a Purpose and Roberts hope to be able to train the next generation of Black aquatic explorers to continue uncovering Black history through scuba diving.
“Ken Stewart, who is the co-founder of Diving With a Purpose and I have become buddies,” said Roberts. “He has so many plans on getting young people trained up. Ken also co-founded a youth Diving With a Purpose; it trains young people as young as 16 to do this work of mapping shipwrecks. Ken is building pipelines to get more Black kids swimming and get more Black kids trained as divers.”
“Into The Depths” helps to bring awareness to an often under spoken aspect of Black History. Black bodies carried not only into North America but also into South America and the Caribbean islands have created a vast diaspora whose descendants all share a common narrative. Lost to the sea, and the more than 1,000 ships lost, lineages have been buried leaving a gaping hole in familial structures only to be rebuilt by sharing stories of the past and healing its wounds.
“Into the Depths” is now available on Apple Podcasts and other podcast apps. “Clotilda: Last American Slave Ship” is also available for streaming.