Several weeks ago, I started to hear from friends and relatives I hadn’t spoken to in years. In fact, a few of them were folks I hadn’t seen in nearly two decades.
“I saw the TV commercial tonight during 60 Minutes,” one friend in Upstate New York wrote. “[My wife and I] both nearly fell off the couch!”
“My kids think I’m cooler for knowing someone famous,” a high school classmate in Louisiana joked.
But my favorite comment so far came from a former boss, who lives in Los Angeles. “You’re a TV star now,” he quipped. “but don’t forget all the little people who knew you on the way up.”
It’s true that your humble editor is now appearing in a commercial for Ancestry.com, but rest assured that it hasn’t gone to my head. Perhaps some of you have seen it playing on HGTV or MSNBC or during a Law & Order marathon on ION.
I ended up in the ad — which has been running nationally since just before Thanksgiving — after sending in a two-minute cellphone video describing what I learned using the genealogy website, of which I have been a member since 2004. The company chose me and nine others from a pool of more than 700 submissions.
In the ad, which is a mere 30 seconds long, I am shown seated on a cream-colored sofa surrounded by plush pillows and African artifacts as I speak about one of the discoveries I made.
As I’m talking, a map of Africa floats above my head, and a chart of my family tree appears: Its branches go back seven generations to a woman named Marianne Gaspard, my 5th-great-grandmother.
What I learned from my research is that Marianne was born on the continent of Africa in the late 1700s and came to Louisiana as a slave before achieving her freedom at some point before 1850. Her original African name has been lost.
I know very little about her life, but had Ancestry.com not been available during my quest to learn about my lineage, I would never have known that Marianne existed at all.
I am haunted by the thought of her harrowing experience chained for months in the stinking belly of a slave ship, enduring endless cruelties and indignities — including, very probably, sexual assault. But I am inspired by the realization that I come from someone with a strong will to survive, whose descendants have gone on to become successful businessmen, musicians, educators, artists, and even journalists. The determination, love, and joy that somehow survived in her — despite the injustices she faced — lives on in me.
When I am tempted to despair over the difficulties we now face — unjust police killings of Black and Brown people, the persistence of sexism and rape culture, a neo-fascist reawakening, out-of-control climate change, and so on — I pause for a moment to consider what Marianne and many of my ancestors must have gone through.
If during slavery, my ancestors could cultivate enough compassion and happiness in their lives to make the struggle worthwhile, then perhaps there is hope that we can get through these troubling times, too.
Dear readers, email me your thoughts at cjoseph [AT] sfweekly.com.
“Notes From the Intersection” is a column by SF Weekly‘s editor, who lives at the intersection of genealogist, descendant of slaves, and accidental TV star, among other identities.
Twitter: @cgjoseph | Instagram: @yeschanningyes
Watch the spot: