National Geographic Authors Uncover, Explore and Commemorate African American History

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National Geographic Authors Uncover, Explore and Commemorate African American History

Authors, Ann Bausum and Michael H. Cottman, Discuss African Americans’ Impact on the U.S. and Beyond

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Friday, February 24, 2017 - 7:45pm

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In continued celebration of Black History Month, National Geographic recently released books by authors, Ann Bausum and Michael H. Cottman, who have each devoted their careers to discovery, research, exploration and impact. These authors tell the unvarnished truth about African American history during the slave trade (Cottman’s Shackles From The Deep) and the Civil Rights Movement (Bausum’s The March Against Fear). While Black History Month is coming to a close, these books and the authors' thoughts, below, remind us that black history is America’s history and celebrated every day.

Michael H. Cottman: Shackles From The Deep

Michael H. Cottman, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author, is a former political reporter for the Washington Post. Cottman also serves as a special consultant to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration for a national multimedia project, "Voyage to Discovery," an education initiative that focuses on the African-American contribution to the maritime industry spanning 300 years and efforts to teach students of color about careers in marine biology and oceanography. ‘Shackles From The Deep’ is more than just the story of one ship, the ‘Henrietta Marie’—it's the untold story of millions of people taken as captives to the New World. Told from Cottman’s perspective, this book introduces young readers to the wonders of diving, detective work, and discovery, while shedding light on the history of slavery.

What inspired you to explore the Henrietta Marie and write Shackles from the Deep?

When I was working on the first book, The Wreck of Henrietta Marie, I started talking to my daughter about it and she said that she thought it would be a good idea to write something that would resonate with young people. I thought, “maybe she’s onto something”, so I began to talk about how to share this story with young people in a way that would resonate with them to discuss the pain and injustice of the slave trade and in a conversational way that they can relate to and understand. I thought the best way to do it would be through writing Shackles From The Deep, because it’s part detective story, part underwater mystery, part personal journey and part history. 

Historians come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Why do you think it’s important for African Americans to study and to tell the story about African American history?

I think it’s important so that we get the story right. In a lot of cases, I’ve talked to scholars and historians who say that we need to be in the position to tell our own stories so that we can pass these truths to the generations of young people who come after us. It’s important for them to know their heritage, to know their lineage, to know about the horrible global business of slavery. But, it’s also important for young people to know that because of slavery, there was genius that was brought to these shores by African people. What I mean by that is the mathematics, poetry, culture and music—the elements that all Americans and all races appreciate to this day. I think it’s important for young African American kids to understand their history, but also understand that there is an uplifting element that has evolved and come out of the pain of slavery. 

How does the discovery of slave ships, like the Henrietta Marie, help us to better understand not just African American history, but American history?

African American history is American history. African American history is global history, a collective history. To illustrate that, I would point people to a partnership between the National Association of Black Scuba Divers and the maritime archaeologists who we partnered with to explore and examine the Henrietta Marie slave ship. During this discovery, we witnessed an unprecedented effort—white and black divers coming together to explore a slave ship. Corey Malcolm, the Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, said to me, “This is part of our collective history. There is no better illustration of this collective history than white divers and black divers coming together to explore this slave ship.”

If we want to take a step towards racial healing or cultural understanding, we must the acknowledge pain and injustice of the past, and that’s what we did together during this project. We acknowledged the pain and injustice of the past by examining the Henrietta Marie.

If you could describe African American history in three words, what would they be?

Education, illumination and necessity.

Michael H. Cottman, Ann Bausum, National Geographic

Ann Bausum: The March Against Fear

Award-winning author, Ann Bausum writes about U.S. history for young people, and she has published eight titles with National Geographic Children's Books. Her latest, ‘The March Against Fear’, explores James Meredith's 1966 march in Mississippi, which started as one man's peaceful protest for voter registration and became one of the South's most important demonstrations of the civil rights movement.

What inspired you to write The March Against Fear?

I’ve spent two decades exploring under told stories from our nation’s past, particularly ones about the quest for social justice. This story called out to be told for those reasons and because it shares essential history about the evolving nature of the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

You note that Meredith’s efforts were “nearly forgotten.” How did you learn about James Meredith? Based on your research, do you think there are stories, like Meredith’s, that have been left untold?

I’ve known for decades about James Meredith, especially his integration of the University of Mississippi, but also the March Against Fear. The Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of him after he’d been shot along the roadside is burned on my brain; we use that image to open the book. As for untold stories, they are legion. The Hidden Figures books and film prove that—these stories tend to emerge vicariously, so it’s the job of authors and publishers to spot them and latch on.

Why is it so important for our country, and especially our young students, to continue to learn the untold stories of Civil Rights leaders such as James Meredith?

Some of our untold stories are left untold intentionally. They may fall outside of a national narrative of uplift, make us feel uncomfortable, or force us to face past mistakes. I would argue that the best way to avoid such mistakes is to learn about them. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to do that any number of times with National Geographic.

If you could describe African American history in three words, what would they be?

Essential American stories.


 The March Against Fear and Shackles From The Deep are both available for purchase through the National Geographic store; author interviews conducted by Christian Garland for National Geographic.

Keywords: 21st century fox | Education | Diversity & Inclusion | National Geographic | black history month

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