Black history is more than just facts and figures. It is an important component of the present and the future. This can be seen in the work of Tara Robert and organizations such as Diving with a purpose. They are actively reconstructing our image of the past to help shape the present and future of black people.
BGN conducted a zoom interview with Tara Roberts, National Geographic Featured Editor and certified diver, and she shared with us her experience documenting slave ships.
I am a person who likes to travel. I have a global vision. I love meeting new interesting people who are changing the world. At the same time, I love to dance, and I’m a bit nerdy, a bit clumsy, and a bit muddy.
It’s almost like I don’t have a physical home. I’m always moving, always moving. It was causing me pain. What I realized on some level is that my home is the planet. I find a home and roots everywhere.
What helped shape who you are? What has helped you show your most authentic self and not what society expects of you?
I grew up in a single parent family with just my mom and me. My mother surprises me. She doesn’t walk into situations and fade into the background – she always intensifies. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, but there was a lot of culture back home. My mom helped expose me to summer camps and opportunities that showed me things were possible. My mother helped shape this go-getter attitude in me.
What motivated you to join Diving With A Purpose?
Everything was accidental. I lived in DC and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There they had an exhibit on Diving With A Purpose. There was a photo of a group of women in wetsuits on a boat, and it captured my imagination. I immediately wanted to be part of this world. I did not think at that time to dive with them. I just wanted to support them. When I got home, I contacted the organization the next day, and wrote to them saying they were doing a great job, and offered to nominate them for a scholarship.
The person who founded Diving With A Purpose, Ken Stewart, invited me to come dive with them. I said yes, but before I could dive I had to get a scuba certification. For my certification, I was hooked up to Washington DC’s oldest black scuba club. They have been active for over 60 years. It took three months to complete the course, and by the time I got my certification, I had fallen in love with this world and these divers.
After my experience, I thought someone should tell this story and how DWAP debunks stereotypes. At the time, I had taken a detour from my training as a journalist and storyteller, and thought I might be the one to tell their story. So I left my job without any funding or assignments to really be able to follow them and I knew things were going to work out.
I took my savings and went to Southeast Asia for 3 months to qualify for the DWAP. I went on scuba trips, meditated on the beach, and wrote in my journal. And meanwhile I got an unexpected ping in my inbox that National geographic has a storytelling purse. I was a recipient of this grant, and it opened up a whole new world to tell the story.
How was your first dive? What were the emotions you felt?
The first time I dived was with the Underwater Adventurers. There were also other DWAP members, and it was my first time in the ocean with all black people. We had our boat, and of course there was music and dancing.
Being in the water is the most peaceful and mediating thing you can do. When you dive you are not talking, there is no sound around you and you are aware of your breathing. Your mind can’t race – it needs to be focused, so it’s very meditative and calm.
I remember the night dive we did. I couldn’t see anything and just had the light on my forehead. There was this darkness, and suddenly we saw this light coming towards us. It started to come closer and closer, and I realized it was a shoal of shining silverfish. It was like a magical dream, and I was living it with people who looked like me.
What lessons have you learned from your dives?
So much of our history has been lost. 36,000 travelers carried 12.6 million Africans across the Atlantic. Of these travelers, at least 1,000 ships were wrecked, but fewer than 20 have been documented. There is a huge amount of our history that is still there.
It is also estimated that 1.8 million Africans died in the Middle Passage. I didn’t know there were so many.
At the end of our interview, Roberts mentioned that she felt empowered by her work. She emphasized that black people don’t have to wait for people outside the culture to document black history. Roberts reminds all black people that they don’t have to be scientists or historians to share and discover black history. Each black individual has the power to shape the narrative.