Serious Take: The Black Southern Confederacy

I don’t normally write articles like this. I’m not a very serious guy. But occasionally, someone says something so stupid that it has to be addressed in a long form.

Today, that someone was in the form of a video essay on YouTube from the channel Straight UP

In the video, the creator opines that multiple prominent figures in the Confederate history were African American, and that this fact was covered up by historians as a means of baiting race relations and dividing the nation further.

In the video, he makes claims that the Davis family, including President Jefferson Davis’s wife Varina, Vice President Alexander Stephens, General Robert E Lee, and a number of other prominent Confederates were, in fact, black. Making the claim based on descriptions of the people in newspaper articles and books as “dark complected” or having “olive skin”. hammering home the idea by showing a bowl of olives, with some being a deep brown color.

His misunderstanding boils down to primarily one issue. He doesn’t understand how skin complexion works.

What is complexion? Put simply, it is the overall color of the skin in its complexity. White Europeans and Black Africans are not and were never judged on the same scales of complexion.

For most black people, fair skin is a creamy caramel color, and dark skin is deep as molasses, and every shade in between.

For most white people, the range is anywhere from pale white to olive.

So, what is “olive skin”? Olive skin is a yellowish skin tone associated most commonly with the Greek and Mediterranean peoples, but also is found in the Middle East, India, Malay, and Hispanic cultures. Most often the term is used to describe white people, like the Greek, as opposed to “foreigners” because, yay racism.

Occasionally, you can have crossover, where a lighter skinned black person is lighter than a dark skinned white person.

He pulls out an article from the 1880s that talk about what the Davis family was like after the war. The article describes them all with “good features” (meaning they looked kind and empathetic) and uses the terms “rich olive”, “clear olive”, and “rich brown, like all of his family”

So, when you hear him talk about Jefferson Davis’s family as have “rich olive skin” and “dark complexions”, he primes you to think of it wrongly by showing images of unripe olives or washed out photographs of the person he is describing. He also shows a wide gap between “sallow” (which he paints much like the color of the light green olive) and “olive” (which he paints as brown)

In reality, the difference between sallow skin and olive skin is more like the difference between pale and tan skin in a Northern European. To a person from French-colonized Canada, these people would be exceedingly colorful, and darker than a typical white person from their area. But they were also probably lighter skinned than even the lightest Black man.

He immediately then calls out that schools teach that the South was run by white slaveholders and anti-abolitionists, and plants the first seeds that he is claiming a massive conspiracy to besmirch the Confederacy.

Those photographs clearly depict white people, but they don’t appear to be dark skinned at all. As the creator points out, multiple times, why are the photos like this? Because, he claims, the photos are all faked to hide the fact that the South was run by black people (and thus couldn’t have been about racism)

What he doesn’t consider is that photography at the time was absolutely terrible, especially at capturing the color red. Why should it need to be? The images are black and white. But that causes skin tones to be altered dramatically, either washing out the skin and making the subject look whiter or darkening the skin and making the subject look pitch black.

These issues in photography are still being worked on to this day, with cameras being adjusted and filters added to allow for truer and more complete images of black skin. And remember that in the Civil War, photography was new. The process was clunky and imprecise.

Below is a photograph of a mixed race black man taken in the 1870s, known as Cherokee Bill:

Cherokee Bill, born Crawford Goldsby

Both parents were half-black, and he had Native Ancestry from his mother. Looking at the above picture, he looks significantly “whiter” than the guy on the left.

The point being that the skin tones of subjects in old photographs and portraits are not going to be exactly the same as in real life.

After his lengthy diatribe about the photographs and portraits of famous Confederates being faked and the “originals” being destroyed, along with the suggestion that this coverup is the reason Black people were not allowed to be educated, he moves on the Varina Davis herself, who may have been described in code as having “very very dark skin”, but we don’t have a direct description of her, just a coded message that may or may not be correct. “Very very brown” is again going to be subjective, with a person who identifies as white being described that way, when a black person would be described as very light. He does indicate that he doesn’t think she is actually black, but rather part of a European Family of Color. If this is true, she might have looked simply darker than normal, and thought of herself as white. Most attributed her darker skin to a Welsh ancestry, but historians note that she was called a mulatto by people who didn’t like her.

Next up is Stephens, the Vice President himself, who in an article was described as “swarthy”. Swarthy is a favorite term of some of these journalists and the creator here takes it to mean “black”.

It’s not crazy to think that, in itself. It comes from the word “svart”, meaning “black” afterall. But it doesn’t usually mean “black”. Comedian Russell Brand has been called “swarthy”, as has Indian actor Sendhil Ramamurthy. It just means “darker than normal”.

Another term he calls out is “ruddy”, meaning reddened in appearance, which also has a secondary meaning of “dirty”. In regard to a skin color, it implies that a person is more red or brown than normal. That’s the important thing to hammer home here. When we talk about people with dark skin, we use the same terms differently when we are talking about a white person vs a black person.

He lists a number of articles that describe black people as “swarthy” to emphasize his point that “swarthy” is journalist code for black. But when he gets to the list of slave auctions, he skips over the fact that the offered slaves are both of light and dark complexions. He doesn’t assume that these slaves are white, when they are described as having light skin. Neither should he be, but he does assume that dark complexion instantly means “black”.

He casually mentions that he believes that Hannibal Hamlin, the VP of the Union during the War, was also a black man. In that section he misreads the article to try and support his claim, so I will take the time to address it here:

It appears that the contest for Vice President in the Republican Convention was between Hannibal Hamlin and Cassius M Clay, and the former succeeded. This was natural, we suppose — Hannibal of old, in whose honor Hamlin was named, was a swarthy African, while Cassius was nothing but a Roman and a white man.

Why was this so natural? The creator here suggests that is it because Hamlin is black and Clay is white. But there is a different meaning at play here. Hannibal, from whom Hamlin was named, was a Carthaginian from the Middle East, and was most famous for invading Italy by crossing the Alps on war elephants. Cassius on the other hand was a fairly common name in Roman, most often associated with Gaius Cassius, who killed Julius Caesar alongside Brutus.

The journalist is meaning to imply that picking someone whose name evokes Africa and war was a better choice than someone who represents tyrants and treachery. In an ironic twist of fate, the name Cassius Clay is better remembered as the original name of boxer Mohammed Ali. (Sorry, I had to include that.)

Skipping ahead a bit, the third piece of evidence shown is that of Robert E Lee’s half-brother, Alfred, who died shortly after the war with a good reputation and decent fortunes. He was unambiguously Black. But wait, if his brother is black, doesn’t that make Robert E Lee black, too?

Short answer: No. Lightfoot Harry Lee was a notorious rapist who liked to take his pick among the slaves. Robert had at least two half-siblings from his father and a slave woman. That doesn’t make Robert E Lee a Black man.

The full list of people that this creator suggests were secretly black men, hidden from history by… I do not know who, includes:

  • CS First Lady Verina Davis
  • CS VP Alexander H Stephens
  • US VP Hannibal Hamlin
  • CS General Robert E Lee
  • CS General James Chalmers
  • CS General Joe Wheeler
  • CS Secretary Judah P Benjamin
  • CS Private William Maxwell
  • CS Volunteer Samuel Chance
  • CS Private Samuel Stillwagoner
  • CS Private Henry Stillwagoner
  • CS Private George Howard
  • CS Private Martin Birch
  • CS Private Benjamin Rine
  • CS Private Perry Baldwin
  • CS Private Patrick Haho
  • CS Private Thomas Gardner
  • CS Private David Housholder
  • CS Private James Kaho
  • CS Private Henry Farnsworth
  • CS Corporal Jerimiah Nay
  • CS Private William Shepard
  • CS Private Joshua Hitchcock
  • CS Private John Barker
  • CS Abner Minor
  • CS Private William Bradnell
  • CS Private George Pierce
  • CS Private William Kirkland
  • CS Private James Massey
  • CS Private James Ayers
  • CS Private Louis Walker
  • CS Private Michael Spayne
  • CS Private Andrew Townsand
  • CS Private James Brownlee
  • CS Private Michael Hoyness
  • CS Private Thomas Ballew
  • CS Private E. Ridgeway
  • CS Private J Johnson
  • CS Private James Walker
  • CS Private Johannes Fuller
  • CS Private James Dooley
  • CS Private William Bennet
  • CS Private James Shirley
  • CS Private Azariah Fuller
  • CS Private F.M. Eaton
  • CS Private Alexander Augely
  • CS Private Andrew Apington
  • CS Private Neil McCannon
  • CS Private Benjamin Franklin
  • CS Private George Arnold
  • CS Private Michael Conway
  • CS Private George Sullivan
  • CS Private James Cummings
  • CS Private John Briggs
  • CS Private David Norris
  • CS Private J.W. Rucker

The lengthy list of privates and corporals there was among a list of deserters, to which the creator decided to include anyone listed as “Ruddy”, “Light”, and “Dark” complected, because “you only call black people “light skinned”. The most common occupation for these individuals was “farmer”

This guy takes a faulty premise “the description of “light complected” or “dark complected” only meaning “black person”, then extrapolates that the army was then mostly black, and says that because they were mostly black, the war couldn’t be about race. He also brings up and discounts the idea that maybe his numbers are correct, but the higher rate of black deserters means that black people didn’t want to fight for slavery. No, he says, it means that black soldiers outnumbered whites.

The worst part of this video, however, is probably the use of stock footage that has people thinking, questioning, and nodding their heads as if he is making salient points.

He even washes over the fact that the sudden outnumbering of whites by blacks was caused by freeing millions of enslaved Africans, not by suddenly starting to count European People of Color as non-white.

The greatest irony, however, is that he is putting this crazy thought out there to show that people after the war were even more racist by trying to hide the Black presence in the South.

Try to figure that one out.

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