WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? WHO APPROVED THIS? I understand Beyoncé made Lemonade out of lemons but this is going too far. The Ancestry.com ad featuring Reverend W. Douglas Banks, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, clearly on the Sally Hemings side (a real “blood” descendant — not like the Umar Johnson/Frederick Douglas kinsfolk thing) is killing me. It killed me. I watched it twice last night just to make sure I got it right. The ad was released in celebration of the 4th of July and I must wonder aloud, What are you trying to prove? As a black man, am I supposed feel good about this ad? Is any black person in America? I’m completely lost. And I don’t feel good.
It’s clear that slavery happened and Thomas Jefferson, like most slave owners in the south, had relations with women slaves, the most prominent being Sally Hemings. Ms. Hemings came to Monticello, as an infant, as part of Martha Jefferson’s inheritance of her father’s slave holdings. All of those who say ridiculous comments like, he treated his slaves well or better than most, should never talk to me ever again. I understand TJ’s contributions to our nation, (I live in Richmond, work right outside the Virginia State Capitol, and my wife is a graduate of UVA — I get it) but this narrative that TJ was a nicer slave owner than others, something I’ve heard since elementary school, is the type of shit that humanizes the worst atrocity and American history.
Which brings me to Rev. Banks. I understand that you’re proud of your family. Lord knows Ms. Hemings went through more than I could ever have imagined. The reason this ad strikes me as complete f***ery is that, in this 30-second spot, you talk about your Jefferson nose and TJ’s sense of tenacity that makes you feel like you can do anything. What about Sally Hemings’ tenacity? What about the lineage that brought you into this world under the worst circumstance you could imagine – and never not claimed you? What about your her strength? Her courage? 30 seconds is a short spot, maybe you talked about Sally Hemings more than the throwaway line that was released (I’m praying you did) and Ancestry.com made edits. If that was the case, you shouldn’t have let that commercial stand Reverend. Nor should you have allowed Jefferson’s name to be printed bigger than Hemings on the commercial, but I digress. Yes, you are a human but this ad, while it may not have been the intention, humanizes slavery in a way that validates Jefferson’s actions because you seem to be okay with it. I’m glad you’re good. But you are good in spite of Jefferson’s actions, not because of them.
I’m not a historian but we need to learn better ways of telling history. If Reverend Banks has spent his 30 seconds talking about the strength of Sally Hemings, despite being enslaved since birth, and that he has made it thus far because of her tenacity, strength, and facial features. I’d probably applaud Ancestory.com — but this ad made me feel gross, sad, mad, and not likely to use their service ever.
Now, before all the historians of the world try to tell me all the ways I’m wrong about the history of the Hemings/Jefferson relationship, understand that I’m upset about the feeling I got after seeing the ad. And so far, that feeling hasn’t gone away. State your piece but don’t try to make me feel better about this ad. To me, it’s all kinds of wrong. #WESEEIT trust me #WESEEIT
Since I can’t bring myself to post the commercial — you can find it on youtube. You’ve been warned.