A Utah-based genealogy company has come under fire for running an ad that romanticizes why many African Americans have white ancestry — framing a story from the perspective of a white savior when the biggest historical reason is rape.
Ancestry.com posted its commercial online this month and it has been broadcast in Utah on cable networks. The company removed the video from its YouTube page shortly after The Salt Lake Tribune asked for comment.
Called “Inseparable,” it showed a white man trying to convince a black woman to run away with him to Canada, including a caption that calls them “two young lovers.” It appears to be set in the 1800s.
The ad is “incredibly problematic,” said Noel Voltz, an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Utah. “It’s messy,” she added. “They’re hinting to something that’s really a history of sexual exploitation and disempowerment.”
The video opens with the white man saying, “Abigail, we can escape to The North.”
The woman begins to say something, but is immediately cut off when he interrupts her. “There’s a place we can be together across the border. Will you leave with me?” the man continues.
The ad then displays her name — Abigail Williams — but it is unclear if the storyline is based on a true account, which Voltz said is possible, though highly unlikely.
Ancestry.com, which is based in Lehi and employs 1,600 people, did not specifically address that issue in a statement it released Thursday afternoon.
“Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history,” the statement said. “This ad was intended to represent one of those 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 removed it from YouTube.”
Voltz questioned how the company approved the commercial. She said it encourages people to erase history, and to think about relationships that white masters had with black slaves as touching and beautiful. In reality, she said, those were mostly coercive. “Most black people in the world are mixed because of rape that happened in slavery,” she said.
Many commenters on social media also criticized the ad. Kimberly Atkins, a journalist at Boston’s NPR-affiliated radio station, tweeted that ancestry information for many black Americans “is as painful and traumatic as it is illuminating.” She added: “These are not love stories.”
For those who trace their family lines, there are often gaps, Voltz added, because rapes and assaults weren’t recorded.
Jeanetta Williams, president of Salt Lake City’s NAACP branch, said the ad ignores history and presents a harmful narrative. “People see things like that and think that it’s true,” she said. “It’s not portraying the facts.”
The video appeared to have been originally targeting Ancestry.com’s Canada audience, and was posted under a page for that branch of the company. For Voltz, that doesn’t make it any more palatable or understandable.
“There’s no setup in this that makes any kind of sense," she said. “There absolutely was slavery in Canada, too.”
The 30-second video shows the man and woman, with her in a long, hooded cape, running along a dirt road. They stop by a brick and wood building at a small, shingled porch. He pulls out a ring and says his three lines.
For many in the black community, the commercial brings up tensions over interactions between President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, Voltz added. Jefferson fathered several of her children. Some have presented that history by calling Hemings his “mistress.” But Voltz said she was his property, and that power dynamic doesn’t create a consensual relationship.
Hemings didn’t have the freedom to say, “No,” Voltz said, and the woman in the video also doesn’t appear to be free to talk or make her own decision.
“The white owners came in and raped black women,” Williams added. “They didn’t have a choice. If they didn’t allow it, they were beaten or killed.”
One man on Twitter called it colonization. Another said it was “an irresponsible, ahistorical depiction.” A commenter said the company should “stop with the revisions.” And one said it wasn’t Ancestry.com’s story to tell.
Melissa Murray, a law professor at New York University, asked whether the woman in the commercial is supposed to be the man’s slave and if the ad went over well in focus group testing.
She posted: “Was there no other scenario that could illuminate the value of DNA testing?”