Ancestry’s Controversial TV Ad & My Family

Last week the genealogy company Ancestry stopped airing a TV ad titled “Inseparable” after receiving an avalanche of criticism on social media for romanticizing slavery. The ad depicts a white man in the pre-civil war south urging an enslaved black woman named Abigail to escape north with him.

Screen grab of the “Inseparable” ad

I have been reflecting on this controversy and want to share my sentiments on the “Inseparable” ad as an advanced Ancestry user who has endorsed the company’s products and services to many African American friends and family members who have come to me seeking guidance.

Over the past few days I have heard from many of them, expressing their disappointment with the ad, which I fully share. Here is why the ad was a missed opportunity to connect with the African American and Canadian markets:

1. If the ad was intended to feature a real-life love story, then it should have been made clearer to viewers, which would have given it more credibility.

2. As an ad of historical fiction, it is not representative of the reality of majority of enslaved women in America. Most were not living a love story but a daily nightmare of rape and sexual assault they could not control.

3. Only the white male character speaks. The enslaved Abigail is portrayed as passive and mute which unintentionally makes her the supporting actress in her own story.

I subscribe to Ancestry to uncover powerful ancestral stories of black resilience, triumph and agency over slavery which my family and many other consumers have. These stories motivate and inspire me to continue my search to give voice to my ancestors. Here are three examples:

My third great grandmother Sarah Ann Biggs was born in 1848 to an unknown white father who sexually exploited her enslaved mother Clara. Sarah Ann grew up enslaved in Bertie County, North Carolina. Post-emancipation, she became a school teacher and moved to Suffolk, VA. She was able to pursue teaching because as a “house slave” she learned how to read and write. From this she dedicated herself to teaching freedmen and women how to read and write, setting education as a family value for future generations. Fast forward to today. Her second great granddaughter and namesake, my mother Ann, would graduate at the top of her Suffolk segregated high school, integrate Randolph Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, VA and become a school teacher, just as her second great grandmother had a hundred years prior.

My third great grandmother Anica Staton was born enslaved around 1832 and lived her life in Palmyra, Halifax County, North Carolina. She and her husband were both illiterate, but they provided for their 9 children through back-breaking farm work. Anica’s name offers us a glimpse into her high standing with her family and community. According to James Beard award-winning author and culinary historian Michael Twitty, names such as Anica, Aneeka, Anniking, Nica, Onnika, Anneky, Annec, may originate from the Igbo (Nigerian) name Nneka, meaning the mother is superior…or Big Momma. Within a few generations, Anica’s family was educated and thriving. Her great granddaughter, my grandmother Athalia, earned a college degree in the 1940s, when less than 2% of black women did so, from Virginia State College for Negroes (now Virginia State University) and enjoyed a successful career as a school and small business administrator.

My second great grandmother Emma Goodwin(e) was born to formerly enslaved parents on a plantation in Columbia, South Carolina in 1866. At age 14 she traveled over 90 miles to Charlotte, NC where she labored as a house servant. By age 16, she gave birth to her first child, my great grandfather Harvey Henderson, whom she raised mostly as a single mother. She had more children and was married and widowed twice before passing away in 1924. She lived a difficult life but her courageous decision to move to the city paid dividends for our family. Her granddaughter Laura, my grandmother, completed high school in Charlotte, earned a college degree from Johnson C. Smith University in 1940, and enjoyed a successful career as an educator.

I hope Ancestry’s response to the “Inseparable” controversy is not to shy away from telling difficult stories, but rather to build the cultural competence and diverse leadership team required to develop a better understanding of what it takes to effectively market to diverse audiences and tell their stories more credibly moving forward.

I challenge the company to start sharing more stories like the ones I’ve shared in this blog which are consistent with the history its African American members are uncovering every day through its vast online records collection. I also encourage African American users not let disappointment with the ad grow into disillusionment with the company and the tremendous value it can deliver to us as users.

What are your family stories of resilience, triumph and agency over slavery fit for Ancestry’s next TV ad?

Here is a Freedman’s Bureau receipt covering rent for the Bertie County school house in Indian Woods Bertie County where my third great grandmother Sarah Ann Biggs taught, which includes a special treat — her actual signature. I am so thankful to learn her history and see this.
Halifax County, North Carolina 1880 Census Record for my third great grandmother Anica Staton
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina 1880 Census Record for my second great grandmother Emma Goodwin(e).

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