The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A group of black teenagers went searching for a sunken slave ship. It changed how they view slavery.

Diving with a Purpose teaches students to be underwater archaeologists. Above water, they confront the history of slavery they find below.

Host Nicole Ellis scuba dives with teenagers training to help the National Park Service find the Guerrero, the lost wreck of an illegal slave ship from 1827. (Video: The Washington Post)
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When 18-year-old Tristan Cannon plunges into warm waters off southern Florida in search of a sunken slave ship, he feels a complex mixture of emotions: anger that slavery happened, confusion that people could treat others as property, elation that the system of bondage no longer exists.

But back onshore, he and his fellow student divers — tasked with helping the National Park Service survey historic shipwrecks — sometimes struggle to talk about their mission. The students, part of the Youth Diving With a Purpose program, are predominantly black, many descendants of enslaved Americans. Finding passion in an activity tied to slavery sometimes fills them with another emotion: shame.

“I feel kind of wrong enjoying something that caused misery for others,” said Cannon, a four-time volunteer with the program. “It’s really a hard thing to accept.”

Shame is a sentiment that museum educator Stephanie Arduini said she often witnesses around slavery exhibits at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. She calls it the “Santa Claus” moment, as misconceptions about the Civil War are debunked and grave realities of slavery crystallize and “challenge something about a person’s identity.”

While many of the museum’s visitors express gratitude that the black experience is being included in the Civil War narrative, Arduini said, others resist it, believing that slavery has become too dominant in accounts of black American history.

“Some people will say, ‘There’s a lot of trauma there and I want to get past that,’ ” Arduini said. “Talking about the trauma of slavery and racism and that kind of oppression can be triggering or retraumatizing, especially for people who still experience a lot of racism and oppression today.”

Howard University psychologist Gishawn Mance said the sense of shame largely stems from the narrow frame in which slavery is often presented. In classrooms and popular culture, it’s depicted as an isolated historical event, she said, devoid of context and disconnected from other black experiences.

“It is a historical time frame that these people experienced, but it is not the only story. It’s part of a rich history,” she said. “The lack of context and nuance facilitates a gamut of emotions.”

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Mance pointed to elements often omitted from textbooks and popular narratives about slavery⁠ — from the great African civilizations that proceeded the slave trade to the daily ways enslaved black Americans resisted bondage — leaving behind a historical account that fosters a sense of inferiority.

“Not being taught as much about resistance, rebellion, revolution within the slave trade can make people feel as though they’re inheriting a kind of stigma,” she said.

Moving beyond victim-centric narratives and including stories that counter popular notions of the era helps present a view of black American history that instills pride instead of shame.

“Telling the stories of real and specific humans in three-dimensional ways helps us deal with all the historical complexity,” Arduini said. “It helps people deal with what we and others in our field call a learning crisis.”

For Cannon, playing a role in building that more nuanced story of American slavery has created a deeper connection to his ancestors. Youth Diving With a Purpose, which trains students in marine archaeology, gives the teens a more experiential understanding of slavery than their high school classrooms can provide, as well as an opportunity to contribute to a more accurate documentation of American history.

Underwater, the student divers are searching for the Guerrero slave ship, which crashed in 1827, after the slave trade was outlawed in the United States. Cannon said he’s driven by his own ancestors’ survival through enslavement.

“It’s a triumph of the race,” he said. “It shows how resilient people are when they really want or need something."

It is America’s original sin. So why haven’t the nation’s schools done a better job of teaching about slavery?

“I feel exceedingly empowered to write their history and share it with others,” Cannon continued. “We are a small part of a bigger solution to getting a more complete understanding of slavery.”

Fellow diver Michaela Strong, 18, said she rarely discusses her interest in learning about slavery outside of the diving program, embarrassed for liking a subject so deeply intertwined with “my people being oppressed.” But she said she’s also found power in being able to learn and write history at the same time.

“I like learning about my history and what people have gone through so I can be here now,” Strong said. “It makes me feel more connected to my past ancestors than what any history class has ever taught me.”

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