Diving with a Purpose
This week: in part three of the five-part Slavery: Heritage and Identity series, we introduce readers to Diving with a Purpose, an organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of submerged heritage resources by providing education, training, certification and field experience to adults and youth in the fields of maritime archaeology and ocean conservation, and to document and protect African slave trade shipwrecks and the maritime history and culture of African Americans.
In our oceanic world, culture admixes, and race becomes an undeniable thread of discrimination, brutality, suffering, and death. The forces endure, shifting like a current, with real consequence. Slavery, in all its forms over time, continues, directly as with some fishers and crew on the high seas, or in racially isolated neighborhood, workplace, education, health, and social interaction. As we struggle with these facts, the responsibility, and the solutions, we look for examples where race matters, where cultural equality is affirmed, where real lessons are discovered, and where we find models that might serve to answer, in part, the larger question of how can equality and justice be served.
Diving with a Purpose (DWP) describes itself as “an organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of submerged heritage resources by providing education, training, certification and field experience to adults and youth in the fields of maritime archaeology and ocean conservation, and the protection, documentation and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks and the maritime history and culture of African-Americans who formed a core of labor and expertise for America’s maritime enterprises.”
Founded by professional diver, Ken Stewart, “DWP is a volunteer underwater archaeology program that started with members of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS) and the National Park Service (NPS) in Biscayne National Park with over 110 archaeological sites, approximately 43 of which are intact shipwrecks, that tell compelling stories of the nation’s rich maritime cultural heritage.”
“DWP trains experienced divers, including youth, to become underwater archaeology advocates. Through the program, divers are able to assist in the historical documentation and preservation of artifacts and wreck sites. The program helps to perform a congressionally-mandated condition assessment of archaeological sites within the Park’s boundaries. The program also attempts to interpret and understand the historical context in which the ships existed. To date, more than 300 divers have completed the course and more than 46 have become instructors.”
DWP has expanded internationally, beyond the Park’s boundaries, with expeditions and training abroad. George Washington University, Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, South Africa’s Iziko Museums and DWP, in partnership, formed the Slave Wrecks Project to search for slave shipwrecks around the globe.
This is an impressive record for any organization. But, let me say this: in my two decades as director of a major American maritime history museum, with a direct involvement in the evolution of nautical archaeology in the United States and similar development of cultural policy abroad, I have never seen an African archeologist or diver at any meeting, on any committee, or otherwise involved in any discussion, direct investigation, best practice and treaty drafts, or anything else associated with the discipline of nautical archaeology. It has been simply that the investigation of African nautical heritage was the purview of non-African scholars and divers: exclusion de facto, call it otherwise what you will. Extend over time and place; extrapolate into hiring practice, scholarship awards, faculty appointments, expedition crews, and museum professionals; amplify to the larger social context in which we live, unmixed; and you see revealed the reality and perpetuation of segregation by race from within the genteel order of cultural history and may understand better the anger and disorder in the streets, no longer invisible unless one is determined not to see.
So hats off for Ken Stewart and Diving with a Purpose. Agents of integration and reparation within the sea of history that connects all things. What has happened here is the taking back, the recovery of an event, object, its conservation, interpretation, celebration, memory, and strategy for revised cultural understanding of a thing, place, and time that is authentic, personal, communal, and transcendent. For us to truly understand any story, we need the right tellers of the tale to recover what is submerged, bring it to the surface and the light, to shape the narrative correctly: and that is a strategy beyond whatever lies nearly forgotten on the ocean floor, a purpose for the future.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Mr. Neill served 20 years (1985–2005) as President of the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City.