Cake Walk: The strange origin of an unwittingly prejudiced term

Josh Clark

Surely you've heard the term cake walk, used to describe some sort of challenge or task that is reckoned to be pitifully easy. Surely you have, please, please don't lie. That figurative definition has been around since the early 19th century, as long as the literal one; in fact it appeared in print first. But did you know that the term is actually pretty racist? I'll bet you didn't. Nor did I until I looked into the origin of the term and found it has roots in the Antebellum South of the early 19th century.

During this era of firmly entrenched slavery in the States, the cake walk was a dance event where slaves were invited dressed up in the fine clothes and took on the airs of the white aristocracy. They were held in the plantation home, in the same rooms where the resplendent balls were held among white society.The cake walk was similar, it was a ball held for the slaves. Couples promenaded through the ballroom, bowing deeply and frequently, chins and noses held highly aloft. The couple who performed the best interpretation of how the white folks did it won a cake, baked, one imagines, by a slave.

The cake walk looked similar, but it was also very different. Its intent was to emulate white society in order to mock it. In much the same vein as Saturnalia, the ancient Roman winter solstice festival where the rules of social order were turned upside down and slaves and laborers became the rulers and masters attended their servants, the cake walk was a jest, an event designed to reinforce the social order by jeering at it. The slaves involved did indeed mock the ridiculously refined customs of the aristocracy, yes, and they surely meant it, but during the cake walk they were allowed to mock them and by ruling over even the very event that should undermine his authority, the plantation owner managed to assert his authority even more keenly.

As if its roots in slavery don't make the cake walk racially charged enough, its transition in the minstrel shows of the Jim Crow era are even worse. Gone was even the power allotted to the slaves by the mock and jest of the original cake walk. In stage reproductions of the balls, white performers in blackface performed as blacks who made sincere, clumsy attempts at emulating whites out of a desire to be like them, not to undermine them. The original cake walks being local affairs held in the confines of Southern plantations and the minstrel shows traveling as a matter of course, it was the latter's interpretation that came to define the concept for the rest of the country and the world.

In what you could describe perhaps as a deep desire to stop being so incredibly racist, American society as a whole abandoned the racial basis of the cake walk in favor of it simply describing something so easy that just walking could yield the reward of a cake. This definition is still vaguely racist, discounting the efforts the original slaves went to pull off a good cake walk and really stick it to the man, but it's definitely better than the minstrel show's version.

Apparently someone must always has to be on the receiving end of some form of insensitivity from society at large, however. The current use of cake walk these days is now kind of ageist, as the cake walk has morphed into a common activity found in nursing homes where the couples' promenade of the original cake walks is now joined with musical chairs; the reward is still a cake, but now under common convention everyone's a winner. So cake walk is ageist or racist, take your pick. And it's always seemed like such a pleasant term.