Thursday, August 18, 2011

Phrases You'll Probably Never Want To Use Again

Have you ever used the phrase "cakewalk"? You probably have, in the context of seeing something very, very easy.

You awful, awful racist, you.

The original cake walk was conducted on plantations in the South, and surely you can already see where this is going. Its original intent- or at least, its stated intent- was to give slaves a temporary chance to get back at their masters. Were they to actually get back at their masters, they likely would have done so through grievous bodily harm, which would be kind of bad for the master, so that wasn't done. Instead, they could just mock him for a little while, parodying overly genteel aristocratic mannerisms. This is something they were already doing in private, only now it was done in front of the master. (That's a $12 article, by the way.)

At the conclusion of this mocking, the slaves would pair up to form couples, and do a high-stepping walk, a promenade. The master would then judge all the walks, and award a cake to the best one. Thus the term.

The issue, of course, is that it's no longer really mocking the master if the master's throwing the party, awarding the prize for the best mocking, and has the last laugh by sending everyone back to work as his slaves afterwards. But that was never brought up much.

In fact, the whites eventually took the cakewalk for their own purposes, using it in minstrel shows by whites in blackface. Some tellings go that the whites didn't know they were being mocked, and maybe some never did, but now it was a moot point. Now the blacks were the ones being mocked, and it wasn't exactly subtle. No longer sending up their masters, now they were portrayed as really, honestly trying to be like their masters. And, of course, the other whites in the audience ate it up. Ha ha, look at those black people that aren't really black people but we'll pretend they are because then that makes it okay!

Eventually, though, the black community managed to take the cakewalk back, using it as something of a forerunner to other dance styles, such as the Charleston and the Lindy Hop. If those whites like the cakewalk, maybe they'll like some other dances of ours.

Over time, the meaning of the word 'cakewalk' shed all connotations except the recreational nature of the original event, and from there changed into a term meaning something easy (even though the dance itself isn't).

The cakewalk still survives to this day, though partially due to its history and partially due to its age, its usage has shrunk drastically. It survives in a very unlikely home: the Highland Dance community, where the high-stepping fits in with the generally athletic, ballet-like nature of the other dances used.

No word on if they bake any cakes for the occasion.

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