On Thursday, Twitter discovered an Ancestry.com ad that had been up on YouTube since the beginning of the month. The ad, now being pulled by the company because of widespread criticism, was called “Inseparable” and staged in some vaguely 19th-century setting and featured a young white man convincing a young black woman to “escape to the North” with him. “Will you leave with me?” he anxiously asks, but she doesn’t get a chance to answer before the ad cuts to a tagline: “Only you can keep the story going.” A voice-over continues: “Uncover the lost chapters of your family history with Ancestry.”
Following a tweet by Business Insider producer Emmanuel Ocbazghi, who first flagged the ad, many black Twitter users, particularly those who study the black experience in America, reacted in disbelief. “I have so many questions about this @Ancestry commercial,” law professor Melissa Murray wrote. “1) Is she his slave? 2) is this a real story? 3) is she his slave?” Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted, “While it’s true that 1 in 4 black folks who test their male line through DNA end up finding a white man, it ain’t because of no damn slavery love story. I’m so tired of y’all.”
When I asked the company about the ad’s origins, a spokesperson responded with a statement: “Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history.” “This ad,” the statement continued, “was intended to represent one of these stories. We very much appreciate the feedback we have received and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused. We are in the process of pulling the ad from television and have it removed from YouTube.” (The ad was originally made for the Canadian market; it is unclear if it aired on television elsewhere.)
I asked, in a return email, whether “Abigail Williams” (the name the spot attributes to the woman of the pair) actually existed. The last image in the ad, which fades to black while spotlighting an old-timey-looking marriage certificate with Williams’ name and a sepia photo of the two young lovers, implies that she did. The language in the company’s statement (“important,” “represent”) leaves it unclear. As of Friday afternoon, the company had not responded to my follow-up.
But it doesn’t much matter whether Abigail Williams was a real person who actually fled to Canada with a white man. If this never happened, then we have to wonder why Ancestry.com settled on this fictional story—a sop to white egos, cast with attractive actors and set in a very stylized “historical” milieu, the whole thing oddly reminiscent of Titanic—to sell the concept of genealogical discovery. If it did happen, then Ancestry.com cherry-picked one historical story, a complete outlier within a much larger history containing many, many terrible and traumatic situations—rape, family separation, the selling and buying of black women for purposes of breeding—to advertise their service.
In either case, as black Twitter users pointed out, there’s a deep blindness here about what historical family research might mean for black people. “One of about 1,000 awful things about this commercial is it ignores the fact that for black Americans—myself included—and for others in the diaspora, DNA and documentary ancestry information is as painful and traumatic as it is illuminating,” journalist Kimberly Atkins tweeted. “These are not love stories.”
Historian Blair L.M. Kelley posted a thread that imagined the many other stories about family relationships that a black person pursuing genealogical research might find instead of this stylized fable that looks like it could be on the CW network: “Maybe they can make a commercial where a white male owner sells away his own mixed race children. That would be warm and fuzzy. … Maybe a commercial where an enslaved woman hides in an attic for years to avoid rape. … Perhaps a commercial where your owner sells your spouse far away to have better access to raping you. So many cool stories to be discovered in our family tree. So many great commercials to be made.”
Another recent Ancestry ad, “The Journey,” imagines an Irish family making the decision to go to Canada during the mid-19th-century famine in Ireland. In this scenario, which is filmed on a grimy city street that looks suspiciously similar to the one hosting the young interracial lovers in “Inseparable,” the mother convinces the father to leave, despite his sentimental attachment to his parents’ graves, arguing that their boy needs food.
This ad isn’t blatantly offensive the way “Inseparable” is, but it illustrates a larger principle: Genealogy companies like Ancestry are selling their services by crafting a certain rosy vision of what history was like. Your ancestors were wise, and patriotic, and worked hard, and sacrificed a lot so that you could end up where you are. Their lives unfolded because of their choices, and not because of things that were done to them. They always loved each other and loved their children.
In this sales pitch, the news you’ll get when you look deeper into your family’s history is always good. The past that’s waiting for you to discover was a multicultural utopia, where love conquered all; it’s a 21st-century fantasy of the possibility of “color-blind” human connection, projected back into a 19th-century context. In its blinkered optimism, this vision of “ancestry” is as white as white can be.