Monday, August 10, 2015

Cakewalk: a Great Word and a Quiet Revolt


Over the course of a week’s vacation in New Orleans, I ran across a mention of the Cakewalk dance, which as a word study is inspiring and depressing at the same time.

The Cakewalk grew out of the field antics of American plantation slaves who sought to entertain themselves by exaggerating the haughty promenade and effete strutting of their masters’ formal dances, which the house slaves would often observe and report back to the field hands. 

It grew to be a common distraction for the slaves, this sub rosa sarcasm, and while some plantation owners found the practice irksome, most found it as hilarious as the slaves did, only they by and large didn't understand that they were being lampooned. It was Jonathan Swift-level satire, with the delicious victory of the butts of the joke unaware that they were unwittingly laughing at themselves.

The slave owners would often hold competitions to see which of them owned the best “walker” as they were called. The dancers would strut and preen, prance and bow, doff their caps and wave canes; the winner would then be presented with a highly decorated cake, hence the name. Derived from the Cakewalk dance are several expressions that remain to this day, including, “piece of cake,” or “cakewalk” itself to describe something that is easily done, as well as “takes the cake.”

That America balanced her checkbook on the backs of slaves is one disgrace. That slave owners consumed without remittance not only their labor in the fields but also their leisure in music and dancing is another. That those same slaves were able to satirize their masters right under their noses with the Cakewalk is an act of genius, pride and sheer bravery.