A.E. Rooks talks about ‘The Black Joke'

ABC News’ Linsey Davis speaks with A.E. Rooks about her new book “The Black Joke: The True Story of One Ship’s Battle Against the Slave Trade.”
5:02 | 01/20/22

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Transcript for A.E. Rooks talks about ‘The Black Joke'
- It is the little ship that did. Author and two-time Jeopardy champion, A.E. Rooks is here to discuss her new book, "The Black Joke: The True Story of One Ship's Battle Against the Slave Trade." It unpacks, in fantastic detail, the fascinating history of a ship instrumental in closing down the illegal traffic during the Atlantic slave trade, ultimately freeing more than 5,700 slaves. Ms. Rooks, we thank you so much for joining us today. Of course, this small but mighty vessel was said to be the most feared against the Atlantic slave trade. Why hasn't His Majesty's Black Joke, of course the name of the ship, earned a bigger place in our history books? - I think that's a really interesting question. I think part of it is because the story of the Black Joke does not lend itself to an easy sort of arc of villains, and heroes, and good triumphs over evil. It's more of a story of deep and abiding moral relativism. And I think, in a lot of ways, how it's been treated by history is a reflection of the fact that it does not make folks look particularly good. So, I think that a big part of that is the fact that the Black Joke is an example of how much success could have been had if more political will had been put behind it. And so that's something I go into a lot in the book. LINSEY DAVIS: Right. Slave ships do tend to have a negative connotation. And even though the ship that helped liberate the captured Africans from slavers, they were still viewed as less than. How did Britain's anti-slavery sentiments differ from the slavers if those they liberated were never returned home and truly freed? - Well, it seems that, a lot of the time, the British seem to draw a fairly hard line between being chattel, per se, and then sort of being treated as chattel but not technically owned. So, you see in sort of British efforts to quote unquote liberate Africans, you end up with a system that is basically a precursor to, or a large part of, what we think of as modern colonialism, wherein, even though they were liberated, they were not free to do what they want or go where they please. The British still controlled that and forced many to either settle in the colony or work sugar plantations in Jamaica. - In the excitement of publishing day, you did not forget to give praise to the many people who helped make your book possible. In part, you tweeted, "pop history is impossible without the labor of academic historians" and ended it with the hashtag #CiteBlackWomen. Explain to us the significance of this hashtag. - Well, I mean, as is evident, I have spent a lot of time in grad school. And, as a result, I have been able to see a lot of how and which sources get prized, get lifted up, get sort of lots of citations, and I think that the movement that was created behind #CiteBlackWomen is such a really, really strong and powerful idea, to let's think about who produces knowledge and how we value that. And, even though I am agender, I present as a Black woman, so I tend to ride for all Black marginalized genders, anyway. Also, Professor Mustakeem's book is amazing. "Slavery At Sea" is a really fascinating investigation of what actually happened onboard slave ships, which I think is one of the sort of aspects of the trade that is least covered and most horrific. - And you mentioned how the enslaved are barely acknowledged as individuals. And you say "for all historical intents, just one more body caught up in the morass of profit motives and policy decisions whose personal history we'll never know." In each chapter, when a slave ship is captured, you include a few pages of the liberated African register of it. Why was it important for you to-- to sew this into the narrative? - I think a big part of that is I spent-- there-- there are hundreds of sources in this book, but I spent a lot of time dealing with the histories of British men, the commander of-- the Commodore, rather, of the squadron, the various captains of Black Joke itself. And so, I think doing that kind of work made it really clear whose voices I was not hearing. And I wanted to try and do something to make it very clear that we are not dealing with a monolith of unnamed individuals going through a sort of generic suffering. Instead, I really wanted to focus on the idea that these are people. They are people with names, and heights, and scarring to indicate their tribal backgrounds. There are people who went through this, not just a group or a memory. - That makes sense, for sure, to give them their individuality there. A.E. Rooks, author of "The Black Joke: The True Story of One Ship's Battle Against the Slave Trade." We thank you so much for your time today. - Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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