“I think it’s fucked up to live in America, where they stole you from your homeland then sell your ancestry back to you. Like yeah, you know for $100 I’ll show you where we stole you from!” -  DL Hughley, Contrarian (2018).

“We’re going to do a family crest exploration project,” Ms. Womack shared with her small group of 7th graders. “Family crest, what the hell is that?” I thought to myself as I 360’d my head to my peers, mostly White, who did not seem nearly as thrown by the assignment as I was. Ms. Womack went on to explain that we’d be tracing our family history as far back as we could to create an origin story around how our families got to America. I went to an elite private school in Portland’s West Hills, and in that moment, felt I had been volleyed from my desk into the wilderness of every unknown I'd ever had about Africa. 

Now, everything can’t be culturally responsive, but this was a particularly White-ass premise. The words “family crest” evoked visions of the Crusades to me, more than they did the Savannahs. 

Nonetheless, I pieced together what I could of my lineage: mostly of my mom’s side which I could trace back to my great-grandmother Annie Jennings, who at that time was still living. I spattered ink and photos of my bloodline into something that resembled a crest, complete with a photo of my uncle Brian impersonating Michael Jackson in a high school talent show and a flick I ripped from Google of Florence Ballard of The Supremes, who family legend claims as one of our own. 

I don’t remember the grade I got. What I do remember today, nearly 20 years later is the feeling that it left me with—a cross-stitch of loss and the unknown. 

My partner has heard me grapple with these paradoxes throughout the years. A descendant of weavings between Europe, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, Zoe’s hereditary legacy is not marred by questions of the global slave trade. That said, she is a down-ass partner. Being such in 2021, responding to my questions, she purchased me a life-altering DNA test to help me finally find some answers. 

I got my kit in the mail from Ancestry.com, offered libations into a tube and hurriedly shipped my genes off into the void of their processing lab and waited. 

A couple weeks later, the results were in. When you log onto the site it might as well say: “you’ve got cousins.” Lots and lots of cousins. Among the cousins, I discovered even more memorabilia: old family photos, headstones, and distant infidelities—tripping over stones that some probably wish had stayed unturned. I mean, I even found a brother on there. Yes, a brother. Shoutout to my dad for not keeping track of his shit. 

But beyond the soap opera, I found the pieces that began to fill in some of those long-held places of the unknown with broad strokes of red, black, and green. 

More than 90 percent of my DNA traced to West Africa: Nigeria. Congo. Mali. Benin. Togo. 

For Black America, tracing lineage before the Emancipation Proclamation
leads to an impermeable wall. getty images/stock photo/wildpixel

But in this discovery lay more questions, namely in Samuel J. Ballard. A sharecropper from Panola County, Texas, an area so driven by the free-labor during whatever “again” time Trump is always talking about, its name was literally derived from the Iroquois word for cotton. Samuel, I learned, was my maternal great-great grandfather. 

I soaked up every record I could find on him—granted there wasn’t much. He lived from 1865-1918. The U.S. Census is constitutionally mandated to count every American each decade. Problem is many of us were property the decade my grandfather was born—the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t materialize until three years after 1860, and even then, many were still held in bondage for years to come. When the Census was published that year, 90 percent of Black America was enslaved; assets and liabilities. Essentially, this means for Black America today, when trying to understand your lineage, the decade of 1860 is the wall that keeps wall-ing.

But Ancestry.com has you covered. If you run into a wall with your research they have a team of genealogists you can hire to explore more.

“Depending on the complexity of your research goals, pricing may start as low as $3,500 USD,” the world’s largest consumer DNA databank’s website reads. 

Read: for as “low” as a mortgage payment you can find out even more about the state-sanctioned pillaging and division of your people!

Sounds like game to me.

In 2020, Ancestry.com was scooped up by the Blackstone private equity firm for $4.7 billion. 

Today, you can buy a DNA test kit on the site for $99 and if curiosity nags you enough, you can maintain an annual subscription to the site where you can keep letting the good times roll in for the low-low price of $79.99 a year. 

In this world, truly anything is for sale—even things that’ve been stolen from you. In a world not too distant, stolen people were for sale too. 

A decade before Samuel Ballard’s birth, more than two-thirds of the U.S. Congress owned people. 

Per Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark essay The Case for Reparations, he explained this dichotomy as a “robbery,” writing, “At the onset of the civil war, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton.”

Where else was something valued at around $4 billion dollars?

For cotton and other crops: severed were husbands and wives, bachelors and bachelorettes, brothers and sisters, cousins and play cousins, scientists and engineers, chefs and athletes, artists and jesters, philosophers and pedestrians, possibilities and possibilities, for decades, then centuries.

Today this sick game of Monopoly has morphed from typecasting Black Americans as its cash-crop of choice, to “this is Sparta-ing!” us right into the pits of its proverbial wealth gap decade-after-decade. 

As a company founded in 1997, Ancestry.com is not responsible for the depths of this country’s ills. But a company that profits in large part on history’s unknowns, should be more concerned with the gains it makes on the back of a horrific legacy that continues to plague descendants of the TransAtlantic slave trade. Particularly when there’s a well-documented wall for thousands of its users because of this history. 

It starts to feel like knocking on the door of your old family home that was taken through eminent domain, and the only way to get through the front door is paying the de-facto concierge a fee to walk through it like a faux-museum of your life with all your family pictures, walls, and possessions in the basement.

You know, game.

So, Dear Ancestry.com,

Black people shouldn’t have to pay to learn where we were stolen from. 


a (reluctantly) paying customer,