The Ancestry.com ad begins with a couple - a young black woman and young white man - clad in mid 19th century clothing, running through what looks like an alley. The couple stops. The man holds up a ring.
“Abigail,” the man says, “We can escape...Will you leave with me.” The young woman gets out only a fraction of one word, “I...,” before the point of this ad becomes clear. Ancestry.com, which claims to have the world’s largest consumer DNA database, says stories like 'Abigail's' would be lost to history if people didn't trace their roots using their service.
In the days since it began to air in the United States, critics have described it as a sanitized and inaccurate depiction of American life designed to obscure the brutality of slavery. In doing so, historians and advertising industry insiders say, the ad campaign illuminates a set of very modern, ongoing American problems with race.
Late Thursday, Ancestry pulled the ad from its YouTube channel, scuttled a TV airing schedule and late Friday offered more information about the thought processes behind the ad.
“Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history...both those that are positive and those that are more difficult but equally as important,” the privately-owned Utah company wrote in an emailed statement. “Many of our ad campaigns are based on factual historical events. This ad was intended to represent a love story between two people who were not able to marry in the United States in the late 1800s and wanted to migrate to Canada, which had no blatant laws banning interracial marriage.”
But ads, like anything else created by human beings, involve choices. Choices have meaning.
“What’s really going on here,” said Daina Ramey Berry, a historian and professor at the University of Texas- Austin who wrote the books “Enslaved Women in America” and ‘The Price for Their Pound of Flesh,” “is that the people behind these ads want to feel comfortable and find a happy place. They think this is who I would be. I would be the white man helping this black woman. Here’s a positive story about slavery. It’s “The Greenbook” of ads. It really is.”
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“The Greenbook,” a 2018 feature film, won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It’s also been criticized for distorting history in a way which rendered segregation and its violent enforcement a trivial matter best overcome with personal integrity, grit and the guiding hand of a wise and brave white friend.
The Ancestry ad, created by the Toronto arm of Anomaly -- an advertising agency with offices in New York, Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Shanghai -- first aired on Canadian television in early April. Anomaly did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The ad wasn’t controversial in Canada, a source familiar with Ancestry’s internal operations told NBC BLK. The person spoke on condition on anonymity. In fact, the ad generating such significant spikes in website traffic that an Ancestry executive through the commercial should be deployed south. However, when the Ancestry executive was warned that the ad would likely offend, the executive dismissed the information.
On Tuesday the ad began airing in the United States, the company said. By Thursday, the controversy had mushroomed.
“Ancestry will not comment on speculation about internal company matters,” Ancestry.com wrote in an emailed statement."
In reality, the average slave was bought or traded an average of three to five times before death, said Berry, the slave experience expert. That disconnected slaves from family, friends and all the physical places and routines they had previously known. Slaves were sometimes beaten nearly to death. Men and women, girls and boys endured sexual abuse.
Slave women often wore layers of tattered clothing in an attempt to cover their bodies. Slave girls were taught not to “let nobody touch your principle,” but most were raped, repeatedly beginning around the age of 13 or 14. Slave owners and physicians studied and experimented on slaves -- mostly in the interest of forcing as many pregnancies as possible. Those children could be sold, traded and exploited with impunity so mothers often loved their babies ferociously and missed and worried about them for decades. Although regarded as chattel, slave women were forced to feed their enslavers’ white children from their breasts, perform hard labor during and immediately after pregnancy.
When slaves ran for freedom, they did so at great peril, usually alone or in the company of other black people, sometimes with a lover or (not legally recognized) spouse. Some found help along the Underground Railroad. Most did it on their own while pursued by armed men and dogs. Runaway slaves often went days without food, hid out in swamps, crevaces and caves. There were few opportunities for rueful moments, indecision and rings.
All of that is apparent, if one actually reads slave testimonies, examines the many ads placed by enslavers trying to recapture valuable slaves, Berry said. It’s also clear in census records and how many 19th century black families include mixed race members, even if there is no box to check indicating that most of those children were the result of rapes. Many of those records are available on Ancestry.com.
“When I saw this ad, it honestly made the hairs on my arm stand up,” Berry said. “That’s how bad this is. The most common interactions between white men and black women during slavery were rape. That’s really the most common story.”
Ancestry, like many companies, ranks attracting a larger number of black and Latino customers among its goals, according to the source familiar with Ancestry’s operations who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity. In Ancestry’s case, it’s a business imperative. The DNA profiles the company sells rely on comparison samples from a large and diverse collection of people. Commercial DNA databases do not include a sufficient number of black, Latino and Asian samples to provide the level of detail available to white consumers.
“...Ancestry is committed to serving a diverse range of customers,” the company said in an emailed statement. The statement also included a list of activities and a film funded by the company related to black life, “and who seek to explore their own personal journeys of discovery and to building an internal culture that is aligned with that goal.”
In the wake of the controversial ad, suggestions that Ancestry and other companies need to hire a more diverse workforce have proliferated. Jenelle Coy, the founder and managing partner of the advertising firm Spero, sees something more.
"I think it’s time to recognize it’s more complex than that. These kinds of problems are about hiring and they are about hearing. It’s about listening to the people in the room once you have hired and re-engineering leadership so that knowledge matters and when that one person of color in the room does speak up there isn’t a penalty. That’s when these ads stop happening.”