The Racist Origins of The Cakewalk

Cakewalk Poster/Strobridge Lithographing Co./Wikimedia/Public Domain


If something is “a piece of cake,” it is typically considered easy, but 150 years ago our ancestors had quite an uneasy experience with the phrase. It turns out that the “cake” was a highly coveted prize earned by the enslaved Blacks who put on the best show during what was known as the cakewalk.

On southern plantations, the cakewalk was a ceremonial dance performed in front of slave masters and their guests, who served as judges. The dancers would mimic the haughtiness and stiff-legged movements of their owners as onlookers watched and cheered them on.

According to famed writer James Weldon Johnson, “The fine points to be considered were the bearing of the men, the precision with which they turned the corners, the grace of the women, and the ease with which they swung around the pivots. The men walked with stately and soldierly step, and the women with considerable grace.”

The judging was intense as each dancing duo knew an elaborately decorated cake was at stake along with bragging rights until the next performance. While the cakewalk was a way for enslaved Blacks to mock their masters, it is rather unclear who actually got the last laugh.

Cakewalks became an integral part of minstrel shows with whites dressing in blackface imitating Blacks who were initially imitating them. Crazy, right? The music that accompanied cakewalks was extremely popular and spread from the southern states all the way to New York and Paris.

History is all around us especially in the language that we use on a daily basis. Perhaps, calling something “a piece of cake” should go on the list with “picnic” and “peanut gallery” as words and phrases to think twice about using given their historical context.

Avoiding these types of language is about more than political correctness, it is our duty to battle racial and cultural insensitivity by rejecting offensive expressions that devalue our people and carry white supremacist undertones.

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