Kai Wright: Coming up on the United States of Anxiety diving for the wreckage of slave ships.
Tara Roberts: I had this question throughout all of this work, like, "Where is home for me? Where is home for us as Black people? Can these slave ships help us feel a sense of belonging, a sense of home?"
Kai Wright: We peak underwater with national geographic storyteller and explorer, Tara Roberts, but first, after three days and hundreds of dubious questions, did we learn anything meaningful from Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearings?
Regina de Heer: We're in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. The big news of the week is a confirmation hearing for Ketanji Brown Jackson. Are there any moments that have stuck out to you?
Victor: Absolutely critical race theory, child pornographers has just been ridiculous. I think that the theater has been ridiculous as usual.
Erica: Just hearing what she's been having to engage with, my hat goes off to her. What does this moment mean to you?
Victor: Well, as a Black man with a daughter who aspires to law school, it just one more [unintelligible 00:01:16] that our forefather's fought for. It is immensely important.
Erica: Of course, we're here in Women's History Month. What better way to stand behind this woman who is overqualified to serve as the first African American woman Supreme Court justice. I'm here in solidarity.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. Supreme Court confirmation hearings are on honestly more about crafting a narrative around the nominee than any real probing of their judicial philosophy. In that regard, two clearly competing narratives emerged in Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's hearings last week. One is best summed up by an image, a now world famous image captured by New York times photographer, Sarahbeth Maney, who is herself a Black woman operating in a field in which she is also often the only.
The photo focuses on judge Jackson's teenage daughter, who is sitting just behind her mother, watching as she testifies and just beaming with unmistakable pride. The image has gone wildly viral. It not only captures to the story Democrats want to tell about Judge Jackson, it also captures the real and deeply held feelings that many, many people have about this historic nominee. Now, the other competing narrative that emerged last week is best summed up in this exchange between Judge Jackson and Senator Lindsey Graham.
Linsey Graham: Good. [crosstalk] Absolutely good. I hope you are.
Ketanji Brown Jackson: I understand, Senator, but I'm trying to do-
Linsey Graham: Good.
Dick Durbin: Allow her to finish, please.
Lindsey Graham: I hope you go to jail for 50 years. If you're on the internet trolling for images of children in sexual exploitation. You don't think that's a bad thing, I think that's a horrible thing.
Dick Durbin: That's not what the witness said. She should be allowed to answer this question once and for all, Senator.
Kai Wright: This was the circus element of the proceedings, but again, these hearings are about crafting narratives. I feel like the point here was simply to say Judge Jackson's name alongside the words child porn over and over and over again. Those are the stories the parties wanted to tell last week, but with that behind us, I am wondering what can we now actually say about where Judge Jackson might fit in the history of the Supreme Court as a jurist, and if she becomes a justice, what she might mean for the few future of the court.
We'll start tonight by going back through some key moments in last week's hearings with those questions in mind. I am lucky to be joined by Melissa Murray, who is a professor of constitutional law at New York university School of Law. Melissa's research and writing focuses in particular on the legal regulation of our intimate lives, but she's a close watcher of the Supreme Court in general and is co-host of the podcast Strict Scrutiny, which is all about the court. Melissa, thank you so much for joining us.
Melissa Murray: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.
Kai Wright: Let's start with Judge Jackson's personal story and what it means or does not mean to the court. This, of course, came up several times last week and there are a couple of specific moments in that that I'd love to unpack. First, let's listen to one example of how Judge Jackson responded when asked about why it matters that she'd be the first Black woman on the court.
I'll say that part of the point tonight here is to get past the sound bites about this appointment. This isn't one of the big stirring moments that have led the news. In this moment, in the middle of day two, I personally can hear her really trying to find the right words and be deliberate in her framing on how she talks about this. Let's listen as she fully articulates it.
Ketanji Brown Jackson: The judicial branch, its force in our system is the protection of the rule of law, which can only be done by essentially the consent of the governed. It can only be done if people in our society believe, decide, and agree that they're going to follow what it is that courts decide. One of the reasons why having a diverse judicial branch is important is because it lends and bolsters public confidence in our system.
We have a diverse society in the United States. There are people from all over who come to this great nation and make their lives. When people see that the judicial branch is comprised of a variety of people who have taken the oath to protect the constitution and who are doing their best to interpret the laws consistent with that oath, it lends confidence.
Kai Wright: Now, Melissa, this idea leads me to a few questions, but most basically, is it true? As someone, yourself, who has dedicated your life to constitutional law and no doubt is very aware of the deep distrust a lot of people have in our judicial system, is diversity really going to be the thing that inspires more trust? Because it's a powerful point she's making there, that all of this flows from the consent of the governed. I just want to get you to react to that.
Melissa Murray: I think, Kai, the answer is yes and no. She is surely right that the judiciary, perhaps more than any other branch of our federal government, depends on the legitimacy of the people because the courts, unlike the president, don't have a standing army that they can call out. They are unlike the legislature in that they don't have the power of the purse. They really depend on the people viewing the work that they do as legitimate and following it because it is legitimate. That is obviously easier if the public believes the court understands and reflects the nation itself.
I think that there is truth in that, but it does strike me that this historic appointment of a Black woman comes at a time when this six to three conservative super majority on this court is poised to roll back an array of rights that, I would say, a majority in this country hold dear. There is a way in which this is almost a kind of diversity window-dressing, and what the court is actually doing, that conservative super majority is actually doing is things that I think most of the governed do not want, or signaling that they want to do things that the rest of the country does not necessarily want.
In that respect, maybe it doesn't matter that we have the first Black woman on the court if she is part of a hobbled three-justice minority that is, frankly, ill-equipped to stem this rising conservative tide.
Kai Wright: That's a hard pill to swallow just to hear the words, "Maybe it doesn't matter." I just want to dig into that for a second. For you, knowing those two things at once that you know, as a constitutional law scholar, then how do you think about this moment? The maybe it doesn't matter, maybe it does, how do you think about it?
Melissa Murray: As a Black woman lawyer, as the mother of a Black daughter, it is incredibly meaningful to me to see her at this moment, and make no mistake about it, I think it is a foregone conclusion that she will be the next associate justice of the Supreme Court. I don't think there's anything that's going to derail that. Whether the Republicans vote for her or not, I think she will be a justice of the Supreme Court.
The constitutional law professor in me concedes that there is something uplifting and booing about the historic nature of the moment, even as there's something resigned and deeply sad about the fact that I understand she's not, at least in this moment, going to be able to do much to turn the tide here. She is merely replacing another liberal justice. She will bring new things to that seat that perhaps Justice Breyer did not.
Justice Breyer I think was more small-c conservative on criminal justice issues. I think she is not a flaming liberal on criminal justice issues, but I do think she brings sensibilities that come from her experience as a public defender and that are really important on the court. Maybe she'll take a different tact on some of these things.
Again, on some of these bread-and-butter issues, questions of executive power, questions about the legitimacy of the administrative state and how government actually works, reproductive rights, affirmative action, which the court will take up next year, I don't know that the presence of a Black woman is going to make much of a difference when you have six conservative stallworths who are absolutely dedicated to this project of unraveling the 60 years of civil rights gains.
Kai Wright: Well, thinking about her a little more in what she would bring that other won't, later on in the exchange that we heard that clip from just now, which is one she's having with Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, so this is a friendly questioning, but Judge Jackson talks about her parents, and her parents screw a up under legal segregation, hers like mine. She says, she's the first generation of Black people to grow up outside of legal segregation in the United States.
I bring that up because the way she talked about that reminded me of Barack Obama kind of patriotism, like this true believe in the American story and the American progress and America's institutions in progress. I just wonder, is that an important element of her judicial philosophy? How do you think that will shape what she brings to the court?
Melissa Murray: Well, I think like the justice she's poised to replace Stephen Breyer, she is a perennial optimist, and I think you saw that in her statements before the Senate judiciary last week. In that colloquial with Senator Leahy when she was talking about her parents, she does have the buoyant optimism that only comes from being a generation away from this incredible system of, frankly, apartheid. Her parents grew up under this and they managed to persevere and they managed to give their daughter a completely different life. Here she is now standing before the country nominated to the highest court in the land. Of course, you believe in America.
I am the daughter of immigrants. I know that my story, my trajectory would be impossible anywhere but in this country. I too have some of that optimism, but I also think, and I imagine she does too, I think she understands probably quite acutely, even if it didn't come across that clearly in this moment that she understands the limits of her role because the judicial role is bounded. I think she understands what it is going to mean to be part of a three-justice minority. She is hopeful, she's optimistic because she knows the promise and the potential of this country, but I also think she understands what she will face in this role when she takes her seat on the bench.
Kai Wright: Well, she also sounds like she is setting aside hope and optimism, just like believes in the system..
Melissa Murray: She's a true believer.
Kai Wright: A true believer in the judicial system in particular. It was the nerdy wonky stuff, but a couple of times I was moved by her insistence on, "Our system is designed in a way that works."
Melissa Murray: She is the antithesis of cynicism, and honestly, it is a little refreshing, especially given what we also saw in that chamber over the course of those three days. There was something, I think, quite jaded and cynical in the questioning that she received, but she really put herself out there, "This is the greatest country in the world, with the most organized system of divided government by design and it works. If we allow it to work the way it's supposed to, the possibilities are enormous for all of us." I think she made that quite clear. Yes, I think you're exactly right. She's a true believer, and frankly, it warmed the cold dried cockles of my heart.
Kai Wright: [laughs] I'm talking with New York University law professor, Melissa Murray, about the Supreme court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. What did we learn about where she might fit in the history and future of this court? After our break, we'll talk about the way Judge Jackson responded to the critiques of her rulings in some criminal cases, and we can take your calls. Do you have a question for Professor Murray about Judge Jackson or her confirmation hearings, or about the Supreme Court in general? We'll be right back.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, everyone. This is Kousha, I'm a producer. Last week we explored the sometimes complicated relationship between our names and our racial and ethnic identities. We asked for your responses, what does your name mean to you and at what point did you realize that it also meant something to other people? Here's what one listener had to say.
Narayani: Hi, Kai. I had the most surprising visceral reaction to your latest episode on names. By the end, I was literally in tears. My given name is Narayani. I'm a white woman. However, I was raised in the Hari Krishna movement. We were living isolated from society on farms around the country. When my mother decided not to be involved with that anymore, I was thrust into the real world for the first time.
I don't think I have ever really felt like I truly belong anywhere culturally speaking. I will never truly fit into Hindu culture because I'm white. For the first time in my life now I'm actually sending down roots and marriage and children. It's the longest I've ever stayed put anywhere in my life. This episode really brought up a lot that I didn't realize was still buried there and hadn't really paid attention to. Thanks a lot. Have joy and fulfillment all your days.
Kousha Navidar: Thanks, Narayani. And thanks to everyone who's listening and talking to us. If you have something to say, feel free to send us a message, voicemail, email, whatever works for you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, that's email@example.com. Thanks. Talk to you soon.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright and I'm talking with New York University law professor Melissa Murray, co-host of the podcast Strict Scrutiny. We're talking about the Supreme Court. Melissa, let me ask you about something else Judge Jackson said. This is, again, an exchange with Senator Patrick Leahy, but it's one of the many back and forth exchanges she had on whether she's tough enough on people who have committed horrible crimes. In this case, she's responding, again, to Patrick Leahy and he cued her up to talk about her views on due process.
Ketanji Brown Jackson: The framers said, what we're going to do is we are going to put in our foundational documents, a protection for people that the government is accusing of crime. That's not to say that the people are innocent, that's not to say that they haven't done terrible things. What it's about is ensuring that the government does what is required in order to ensure all of our Liberty. It protects all of us because there might be someone who is innocent, and if the government is able to just do whatever it wants in the criminal process, we are all at risk.
Kai Wright: I thought this was interesting, and maybe this is just because I'm not a lawyer and I don't know enough about the law, but on one hand, it's like she's talking to conservatives there, who are typically deeply concerned with government power, but then also, again, this sounds like a truly deeply held value for somebody who just really believes our system is well designed. I just want to hear your reaction to this part of her testimony and what you do or don't take from it.
Melissa Murray: Well, I love this part of her testimony because I think she was drawing a line under this idea that you don't have to be a conservative to value the rule of law. Conservatives like to talk about judicial activism and liberalism run amuck, but there are progressive values that are constitutional values, and this idea of due process regardless of who you are, regardless of what you've done is one of them. She's exactly right, it's not just for the benefit of those accused of crimes, it is for the benefit of all of us, this idea that this protection, for those accused of the worst things in our society, are there because we don't want the government to run amuck on everyone's rights.
I really thought this was an important point that she made clear that these values are not conservative values, they're not progressive values, they are constitutional values and they should be congenial to all of us. When the Republicans try to take her down because she has served as a public defender, she, I think, reminded everyone the sixth amendment demands that we offer those who are accused of a crime a defense, and when they are unable to afford it, we provide that counsel because that is a bulwark against the prospect of the state using its awesome power in ways that harm not only the accused, but potentially all of us.
Kai Wright: Right. Again, I apologize to you and everybody else because this is just my legal novice, but I wonder about the framing, too, because I heard her do this a lot, of using this language of like going back to the founders, "This is what the founders wanted," to then articulate a set of ideas that are typically more associated with liberal jurists. Is that a new for that way of talking or is that just because I'm not normally around lawyers?
Melissa Murray: Well, I don't know that it's a new thing, but I think it was the first time we have seen a nominee make those points as explicitly. Again, I don't know that we've had a nominee who has needed to do so because we have not had a public defender as a nominee in the past, we've had those, like my own justice, Sonia Sotomayor, who came from a prosecutorial background, where it is the arm of the state that you are representing.
That might be one of these questions, we just haven't had anyone with her background, therefore, we haven't had these conversations, but I think she was saying these values are common values, regardless of ideology, regardless of party, they are American values and they should be congenial to both sides, and they are values that we cannot be itinerant about. They have to be in place for everyone or this system doesn't work for anyone.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Maya here in New York city. Maya, welcome to the show.
Maya: Yes. thank you, Kai, for this discussion and for taking my call. I have a question and a brief comment. Professor Murray, on a Ralph Nader's Radio Hour, he brought up something I had never thought about, and that was-- and was talking to Bruce Fein of the Constitutional Center or constitutional project, something along those lines.
He brought up the fact that previously, citizen testimonies and citizen organizations, where were those organizations and what is the significance of the whole format, as it were, becoming morphed and greatly changed, especially for the public.
My comment is language is very important. When we speak of conservatives, are we saying what we want to say? Because they seem to be more reactionaries, autocrats and even fascists, and I'll listen to over the air. Thank you for this discussion.
Kai Wright: Thank you. Did you get that question, Melissa?
Melissa Murray: I think so. I think what Maya wants to understand is where's the voice of the public in this confirmation hearing. The short answer is, there's always a component where there are external witnesses, not just the nominee herself, but external witnesses. That appeared on the fourth day here. The first three days were just Judge Jackson with the senators.
Then on the fourth day, we had external witnesses, which included representatives from the American Bar Association who provided commentary and testimony about their process of betting the nominee and the very extensive process they underwent asking lawyers, judges, members of the legal profession about Judge Jackson's qualifications. They ultimately gave for their highest rating well qualified.
We also heard from some majority witnesses, including Wade Henderson on the chair of the leadership conference for civil rights and human rights. Risa Goluboff, who is the Dean of the law school at the University of Virginia and who is a former clerk to Justice Breyer as well and she spoke about Judge Jackson. There were also minority witnesses. There were a couple of representatives from some conservative organizations, including Operation Underground Railroad, which I believe works to deal with child trafficking.
There's also a religious Liberty organization that was also providing testimony. We did have some input from these external organizations. Regrettably, this was not covered as heavily by the media, obviously, as the first three days when it was Judge Jackson in the hot seat.
Kai Wright: Right. Well, we just gave it a few minutes here. Let's go to Katrina in Maplewood, New Jersey. Katrina, welcome to the show.
Katrina: Hi. I love your show. I just want to say Ketanji is my classmate from Harvard Law School.
Kai Wright: Oh, really?
Katrina: I'm so proud out of her. Yes. I'm just really, really proud of her. There are tons of us in the New York area, I'm sure, but I want to just comment, and I'm a little surprised at myself for saying this, but I think I'm tired of the diversity questions that go to the diversity candidates. We didn't ask Brett Kavanaugh or maybe even Amy Coney Barrett about the importance of diversity of what it means to have a diverse court.
We put the burden on the Kentajis of the world to speak to that, and maybe even this happened with President Obama, but I want us to, if we're going to ask those questions, ask them to everyone, of all the candidates, whether it's Kavanaugh or Gorsuch or whoever is next after Judge Brown Jackson. I'm a little surprised because I'm truly a proponent of all of these progressive policies, but I'm getting a little tired of the questions that only go to the diversity candidates about diversity. I would just love your comment on that, and thank you.
Kai Wright: Thank you for that Katrina. Melissa. We got into this a little bit in a show right after the announcement. We wrestled with this a little bit, but what do you think, Melissa?
Melissa Murray: I agree with Katrina and I will also know that Katrina is not simply a classmate of Judge Jackson, she's also a classmate of Senator Ted Cruz. Perhaps we might talk about it as well in this conversation.
Kai Wright: There you go.
Melissa Murray: I think Katrina is actually astute in making this observation. If diversity is a universal value, as we argue that it is, and that everyone benefits from diversity, that it should not be incumbent on those candidates from "diverse or underrepresented backgrounds" to fly the flag for diversity all of the time. I completely agree with that, but I wonder, though, if the Democrats resurfacing of this trope was really about trying to counteract some of the dismantling of her record that we saw from the Republicans, and the effort to associate her with, I think, far left or radical perspective simply because she's someone who looks like many of the people associated with those ideas.
I'm thinking specifically the effort from Senator Ted Cruz to associate her with Abraham Kennedy's writing, and specifically anti-racist baby. We never saw Brett Kavanaugh being linked to conservative legal principles or conservative legal authors or Amy Coney Barrett being linked to any author that espoused a Catholic legal conservative, like Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School, for example. No one would ever do that, but I thought it was really, really interesting that many of the Republicans were acting as though Judge Jackson was a ghost writer for Abraham Kennedy, and she was personally responsible for anti-racist baby.
I think that's only something you can do when the candidate shares many of the same identity characteristics with the person espousing the position with which you disagree. I wonder if the Democrat's efforts to focus on the importance of diversity on the bench was also to help counteract what was going on the other side.
Kai Wright: It's interesting because it's also a double slur because we've had Abraham on the show, he's friend of mine, and his ideas themselves are not that radical. By painting them as the radical thing, she must defend herself against that. You kill two birds with one stone, to use a terrible analogy, but in the minute we've got left here, giving back to basics here, what do you think really is her potential contribution to the history of the court as a jurist?
Melissa Murray: This will be an historic nomination because of who she is, but she will also be historic because, and I will say this to anyone who will listen, she is the best qualified nominee we have seen in as many years, just on every bench--, of course, she had to be. She had to be twice as good to get to this moment. We have someone who will bring a criminal justice background experience with the sentencing commission, which is the big part of the docket of the court. Thinking about sentencing policy, especially now, as we're thinking about retroactivity with the First Step Act.
She's someone who, I think, brings a trial court sensibility that the only person on the court who shares that would be Justice Sotomayor. It's vitally important. She's a tremendous candidate.
Kai Wright: We'll have to leave it there. Melissa Murray is a professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law. She's co-hosted the podcast Strict Scrutiny. Thanks Melissa.
Melissa Murray: Thank you.
Kai Wright: Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearings would be a humongous moment in Black American history. Coming up, we go deeper still into that history, literally diving for the wreckage of slave ships with national geographic. What lessons are still lying on the ocean floor? That's next.
I didn't grow up near a coastline. I was an adult before I began to even think about the ocean, and maybe that's why I've got such a funny relation to it, or maybe this is common, I don't know, but I am so deeply drawn to the water and its enormity, the mysteries that lurk underneath it, while also terrified of those mysteries, and not just the sharks and jellyfish and undercurrents and all that, those physical dangers do shake me, trust, but I'm talking about something spookier here.
There's so much history in that water, so much lost memory. A new podcast and reporting project from national geographic invites us to rediscover some of those memories. It's called Into the Depths, and it's hosted by National Geographic storyteller and explorer, Tara Roberts. She follows a group of Black scuba divers and ocean archaeologist who are hunting for the wreckage of slave ships, but she ends up on quite an emotional journey of her own as a Black woman trying to connect with her ancestry. I recently got to talk with Tara about the project, which is also featured on the cover of the March issue of National Geographic magazine. Tara, welcome to the show.
Tara Roberts: Thank you for having me.
Kai Wright: This project was actually two years in the making. It all started at the National Museum of African American History in DC, when you saw an image on the wall are these Black scuba divers, mostly women, I believe. Tell us about that image and why it struck you so much.
Tara Roberts: It's a little crazy, Kai, because it's a great picture, but some kind of way, that picture went up a level in my imagination and I actually thought I saw something that wasn't there. Like, in my imagination when I saw that picture, it was like the women were standing up on the boat, they had caps on, their hair was flowing in the wind.
Kai Wright: Wow.
Tara Roberts: For whatever reasons.
Kai Wright: Caps?
Tara Roberts: Caps. It was literally like the caps were blowing in the wind. They were standing up there looking like superheroes. That's how I remembered the photo. Then a couple years later, I was like, "Oh, let me go look at that picture again." I was like, "It looks nothing like what it did in my imagination." It's still a great picture, that there was something about seeing these Black women participating in an activity that I'd never really seen a group of Black women do before.
Then when I read the placard about who they are and what they were doing, I discovered that they were a part of this group called Diving With a Purpose, and that part of their mission was to search for and help document slave ship wrecks around the world. That just blew me away.
Kai Wright: Then you proceeded to make what I have to say it's a remarkable investment as a journalist. You quit your job and spent months learning to dive in order to get ready to the story. Honestly, as someone who's worked much of my career in enterprise and investigative journalism, it's rare to see Black journalists have space to pursue something so ambitious.
Tara Roberts: Well, I think there was something about the story that felt really important to me. I thought the work itself was revolutionary, like Black divers searching for slave shipwrecks, like, "What? That's crazy." This also was a moment in our history, where politically all kinds of things were happening around race and identity. I wanted to contribute to the conversations that were happening there, but I was like, "I could try to cover this story without doing anything, but if I really want to cover the story, I have to experience what they're doing. I have to become a part of it in some way.
Kai Wright: You talk in the podcast about making this decision and just the power of stories, your belief in the power of stories. Can you talk a little bit about that, just what you think is important about stories in the first place?
Tara Roberts: I think stories are the way we make sense of the world. I think they help us understand ourselves, understand each other better. There's this beautiful quote that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer says, and I'm going to butcher it, but let me summarize- [crosstalk]
Kai Wright: -It's okay
Tara Roberts: She said that, "In essence, stories were the greatest vehicle for empathy," because, through a story, you could really understand a person, you could understand any events in a way that maybe couldn't before. There's a lot of truth in that. There's a reason why throughout every culture, throughout history, stories, whether they're oral stories, whether they're written stories, whether they're acted out stories, they are continuous and they help us understand ourselves.
This story in particular feels really important. It feels really important to be told by different voices because it hasn't been told before. There's a whole bit about the global slave trade about these wrecks, but just it doesn't exist in our history books. We're not taught it. To have these people who are out there trying to bring this history, these lost stories back into human memory just feel so powerful to me.
Kai Wright: These Black people out there trying to bring this Black story back into our memories, it seems really powerful in that specific way.
Tara Roberts: Yes, definitely. One of the statistics that I learned early on that I always talk about because it really illustrates the power and the necessity of Black people telling this story. What I learned is that 1.8 million Africans died in the Middle Passage. 1.8 million African died in the Middle Passage. There's no one grieving those people, mourning those people. There are no memorials to that magnitude of loss of life, but then you have these Black scuba divers who are going down, who are finding stories, who are bringing that memory back up to the surface, and that just feels so profound to me.
There's a thing that a historian from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mary Elliott, said in one of the interviews that we did with her, and I love it. Essentially, she says, what she wants the ancestors to know, what she wants those lost souls to know is that we didn't forget about you, we actually came looking for you. When she says that, that is power. That is a healing circle that's in effect there. That's only something that we could do.
Kai Wright: Well, with that in mind, I know you say in the podcast that you are not into church, you don't to church, but the blessing from your mother's pastor and his advice to connect with the spiritual as you do this work moved me. Let's take a listen to that.
Bishop Jack: As you're doing this work, you're doing getting the alter, that's your research, you're gathering information. That's great. Take it to the next level. Do that spiritual work, meaning get in tune. If you can get in tune with the essence, the spirit of our ancestors who were lost during that Middle Passage, invite them, invite their blessing on the work.
You can do so by your prayer meditation, you come across the name, speak their name, speak the names, speak the names, and then ask them to bless you, ask them for permission to tell the story, ask them to go before you did make the way straight, smooth, and harmonious. In so doing, you're tapping into the ancestral spirit that's always with us. We say it all the time. That would be my recommendation to you, my suggestion.
Kai Wright: Just take us a bit to that moment with the bishop, what did it bring up for you and how did it shape the journey you then embarked on?
Tara Roberts: It changed everything. It added a layer that, quite honestly, I had not been thinking about. When I started this journey, I was really thinking about these divers. The stories of just Black folks in the ocean, it upended the ideas that exist about who Black people could be in the world. That felt enormous. That was my entrée into this work, but it wasn't until Bishop Jack-- His name is Bishop Jack Bomar from Hillside International Chapel and Truth Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Kai Wright: [laughs] Name it.
Tara Roberts: Hello. He says, "Speak their names," so we are speaking his names. He came to my mom's house to bring her an Easter basket, and I was there. He said, "You were called to do this work." So, already, I was like, “like woah” which didn’t make sense with the way that I saw that picture, because I bet lots of people saw that picture, but it did not move off the wall the way that it did for me.
Then my mom has pictures of her ancestors on the wall. He walked with me down the hallway and he was like, "Who's that? Who's that? Who's that?" Then he was like, "Speak their names, speak their names." What it did for me was it really brought home the possibility of healing, and for that healing to be a healing that travels in the past and exists in the present. It's like a healing that moves throughout time.
When that happened, we had started working on the podcast and we were trying to figure out, "How do we tell this story?" Bishop Jack saying, "You have to speak their names," just clicked so much for us because we were like, "Yes, these are not faceless statistics in a cargo hold," which is how most of that moment of time is thought of. It's like all the horror and the violence.
Kai Wright: That image that we all-- well, at least Black people see growing up, the drawing of bodies packed into the bottom of a slave ship, that's what we think of.
Tara Roberts: Right. You don't see individuals inside of that. We decided to thread these names throughout the podcast. We also brought in our resident poet, this amazing National Geographic Explorer, Alyea Pierce, who's a spoken word artist, to help us imagine their journeys.
Alyea Pierce: Can you hear it? Are you really listening? [crosstalk]
Tara Roberts: Not just their journeys in depth, but their journeys as souls, as spirits, as something more than, again, just these bodies in a hold.
Alyea Pierce: This hollow theater made of iron and wood brought together an orchestra of people across the continent. Instruments of human body and voice and ship crescendo into a song of strategy. Sounds of revolt amplifying through the very fibers of the floor.
Kai Wright: As they're doing this diving and searching, what does it actually look like? What does the work actually look like? I grew up watching Goonies. You find this whole intact ship, and there's a pirate skeleton, and gold and all the rest. That's not it. That's not it, that's not the vision. What does the actual work look like?
Tara Roberts: I totally have to laugh. I was so expecting you to say the Titanic, but you went to The Goonies, which- [crosstalk]
Kai Wright: No, I'm older than The Titanic, friend.
Tara Roberts: The Goonies is much stronger image. I feel you. My bad. No. These wrecks are usually not intact like that. Most of them were built in the 1600s and 1700s. They were built primarily out of wood. That means that when they wrecked, they splintered. They wrecked in pieces. Pieces are on the ocean floor. Over the centuries, coral retakes those pieces, marine life overtakes them, the sandy sea floor might cover them, so it's really hard to see. It takes a trained eye to know what kind of things to look for.
Kai Wright: What are those kind of things? What are they looking for?
Tara Roberts: Well, first, the search starts in the archives. It's the archives that give you a sense of where wrecks happened. A lot of these ships were actually insured, and so when they wrecked, the financial backers and the ships' captains would file insurance claims. The insurance companies would come in and investigate, and that left a paper trail. Sometimes there are even court testimonies, there might be crew logs, just a whole lot of paperwork.
Historians and archeologists go through the archives. They locate the area where the wrecking events might have happened. Then they bring on big equipment, like magnetometers, sonar scans, to scan the ocean floor looking for anomalies. Once they find anomalies, then scuba divers go down to actually look and see if those anomalies are indeed something. There are things, like particular artifacts, that are particular to a slave ship. For instance, you find a huge pile of bricks or ballast stones, that could be indication of a slave ship because they would use that weight to counterbalance the weight of human beings that were in the cargo hold.
Kai Wright: We learn a lot about you in the course of this podcast, and you have a lot of emotional moments and go on a real journey here. I want to play one piece of this journey that really struck to me. This is a conversation you had while you were in West Africa. Let's listen to this and then I'm going to ask you to provide a little context.
Anna's recording: It breaks my heart that Black people in America have to go through so much, so much, in a place where for hundreds of years they have considered as home. Even though I don't understand what you go through, a huge part of me knows that you are also part of me. If I could, I would help, but just know that you are in my mind in a way and I know your struggle. I'm really sorry that you have to go through that. It's really unfair that you have to go through that.
Tara Robert's recording: Until she said it, I didn't know how much I needed to hear this, how much I needed someone from the continent, just one person to speak to me on a soul level to say, "I see you, I feel you, I'm so sorry for what happened to your ancestors. I hold you in my heart."
Kai Wright: What happened for you in this moment? More broadly, how did this work change you?
Tara Roberts: It's still actually hard to listen to that without feeling a little emotional. I had gone back to Africa. There were several missions that were happening on the continent. I was back in different countries on these missions. I had also done my own AncestryDNA search and discovered that the highest percentage of my DNA at that time came from Benin and Togo.
I went to Benin and Togo, in particular, to reconnect and to see if I felt like there was home there. I will say that before this, because of all the things that were happening in the United States around race and identity, I had this question throughout all of this work, like, "Where is home for me? Where is home for us as Black people? Can these slave ships help us feel a sense of belonging, a sense of home?" That was one of the underlying questions that I had as I embarked on this journey. Then I went back to Africa like, "Hi, I'm here."
Tara Roberts: I'm not like a naïve traveler. I've lived in Zimbabwe before. I've traveled throughout the continent, but this was the first time that I went back with like, "I'm searching for my roots, slave ship wrecks, ancestry. Hi, I'm here." I did not get the reception that I expected to get. Right before that clip, Anna is breaking down some other that I'm like, "Oh." She's like, "Okay, dude, it's not this one big happy Black family. That's not how we look at you guys." I was pretty devastated to hear that.
I had to go talk to some friends, or a friend, to begin to put that into context. I realized just how much I don't know about Africa, how much I have not thought about it outside of the Western colonial way that we approach the continent, so there was a lot of learning for me. Then Anna says this thing, where I was like, "She does feel connected." I just did not know how much I really needed to hear that.
What's amazing to me is, a number of other Black Americans who have listened to the podcast have sent me notes that that moment trips them up a little bit too. It tells me that there is a healing that is out there for us. It's still in process. I'm still digesting, interpreting, processing, but it does feel like something has moved. There's more possibility in thinking of who we are and who we might be outside of these narratives that we've been given as Black folks.
Kai Wright: Tara Roberts is a National Geographic storyteller and explorer and host of the podcast Into the Depths. You can check it out on nationalgeographic.com or wherever you get your podcast. She's also written a story about her journey in the March issue of National Geographic with gorgeous photos, so check that out too. Tara, thanks for joining us.
Tara Roberts: Thank you for having me.
Kai Wright: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Sound designed by Jared Paul. Matthew Miranda was at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillman, and Kousha Navidar. I am Kai Wright. Keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright. Of course, find me live next Sunday evening, 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Till then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.