Sunday, January 28, 2007

About the Cakewalk and the Golliwog.

Friday night my voice student (and painting friend) Mike was the featured vocalist at an evening of Ragtime music and dance. He was great.

Included in the performance were members of Triangle Vintage Dance. They shared some fascinating information about the dance known as the Cakewalk, telling us that white dancers picked it up around the turn of the century from minstrel show dancers: "If you think it looks kind of ridiculous, that's because our Cakewalk is actually an imitation of slaves who were themselves imitating the ballroom dances and high-society mannerisms of their masters."

As you can read at the Cakewalk History Page, the Cakewalk dance was invented (called the chalk walk) around 1850 by slaves who imitated a solemn processional dance of the Seminole Indians. The site adds: "Many of the special movements of the cake-walk, the bending back of the body, and the dropping of the hands at the wrists, amongst others, were a distinct feature in certain tribes of the African Kaffir dances."

It developed into a parody of the minuets and promenades danced by the upper-class whites in the "Big House." The slave parodists included "dignified walking, flirting, prancing, strutting, bowing low, waving canes, doffing hats, and a high kicking grand promenade."

For entertainment, plantation owners pitted their best "slave walkers" against each other. The prize would be a hoecake wrapped in cabbage leaf (origin of that takes the cake!) ... and the name "Cakewalk" was now set.

Minstrel show dancers in blackface parodied the Cakewalk, which was itself a parody.

"By the 1890's, the Cakewalk was the hottest thing around ... The Cakewalk was the first American dance to cross over from black to white society as well as from the stage (Minstrel shows) to ballroom. The Cakewalk would be the window for other African-American dances to enter white society in the future. Many of the upper class Summer and Seaside hotels would feature a Cakewalk at the end of the season."

The dance's exaggerated nature served perfectly for the physical, hammy humor of the stage shows, the participants generally played as goofy and bumbling as possible.

The cakewalk's original meaning was lost; where it had originally been black slaves attempt to mock their superiors and for a minute live in autonomy, it had come to be the bumbling attempts of poor blacks to mimic the manners of whites. The dancers were no longer joking, but were portrayed as genuinely wanting to be like the superiors. More.

While I was googling around on this subject, the "Golliwog's Cakewalk" by Debussy came up and I was sort of horrified to discover this:

From the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University:

The golliwog image, popular in England and other European countries, is found on a variety of items, including postcards, jam jars, paperweights, brooches, wallets, perfume bottles, wooden puzzles, sheet music, wall paper, pottery, jewelry, greeting cards, clocks, and dolls. For the past four decades Europeans have debated whether the Golliwog is a lovable icon or a racist symbol.

The Golliwog began life in 1895 as a story book character ... the story begins with [two white dolls] encountering "a horrid sight, the blackest gnome." The little black "gnome" wore bright red trousers, a red bow tie on a high collared white shirt, and a blue swallow-tailed coat. He was a caricature of American black faced minstrels -- in effect, the caricature of a caricature. She named him Golliwogg.

Upton's Golliwogg character, like the rag doll which inspired it, was ugly. He was often drawn with paws instead of hands and feet. He had a coal black face, thick lips, wide eyes, and a mass of long unruly hair.4 He was a cross between a dwarf-sized Black minstrel and an animal. The appearance was distorted and frightening.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Golliwog doll was a favorite children's soft toy in Europe. Only the Teddy Bear exceeded the Golliwog in popularity.

The French composer Claude Debussy was so enthralled by the Golliwogs in his daughter's books that one movement of his Children's Corner Suite is entitled "The Golliwog's Cakewalk."

Here's a picture of Peter Estep, coordinator of this event and pianist, and his tuba player, who was magnificient.

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At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Brent said...

My heart cries...

At 8:16 AM, Anonymous paulsroom said...

I used to have a Golliwog doll when I was a kid in the 1950s and I also read Enid Blyton's Noddy which had a Golliwog in it. Political correctness and racial sensitivity may well be right in certain areas to confine this character to the past. But it is adults who tell children how to see things in a bad way. To me at that early age, a Golliwog was nothing more than a black faced character and I had no conception of racial prejudice in any direction.

At 5:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just as with Little Black Sambo, the story was written for children
by their Parent on a long train voyage through India and trips through Africa where they (The Africans) called each other "Black Joe" or "Black Momba" it was, and is not today, in Africa, a racist term. I know personally, my boyfriend from Guana on the west coast had a shirt printed with "Black Joe" on it! My mixed race son LOVED his Little Black Sambo story book. As I did as a child. We would read it in the Morning and then make a huge pile of Pancakes with "Tiger" butter. So it is the parents of the children, teaching what is a bad thing or not...I still cherish those breakfasts as does my son. Since I did not put a negative twist on the story and embrace the African culture as well as all others. So should everyone else and we would not have all of these issues. Everyone should learn THEIR culture first and then encorporate others. Good and the Bad, because many people only know what their Parents teach them and it may not be all true. Don't be a Lemming and go along with others. Open your mind, and keep quiet until you get all the Africans sold Africans to the White man, and white men have kept white men as slaves for Centuries. No it is not right, but neither is Anyone going to a massage parlor a so called Spa, with an Asian Girl...Most of those girls were sold into servitude to Many Different Nationalities' "Business owners" So if anyone is going to be self rightious, do bad things and then Pray to God to be forgiven on Sunday...God Help them, Because That is a bunch of Hipocritical lies. Did you drive a SUV home 5 Blks from Church last Sunday? Obviously I could go on forever, so "just, be good for goodness sake", Belive in Magic and Travel. Cheers, Everyone.

At 10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sent for a golliwog pin from the Robertson Jam company in the 1950's. I brought home to Canada a golliwog doll in the early 1980's after a trip to England(my birthplace). I have an email address with golliwog as part of the name,but my other email address I shortened it to golli since I am afraid of offending someone(we are so multicultural)I just consider it to be a British doll loved by many.

At 11:47 AM, Anonymous quiltmuse said...

Thanks for this very informative blog entry. Tther is a discussion on the Quilt Art list at present about golliwogs, sparked originally by a quilt shown at the PIQF show called 'Gollieville', a design by an Australian designer (or maybe two).
As this is an international list there are a number of differing points of view about both the quilt and gollwogs in general.

At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can appreciate you having your experience and fond childhood memories of an item or practice---but what I don't appreciate is the constant attempt to discredit or silence reasonable, sound critiques of said "memories" and practices in the face of more information and knowledge about the origins, specific historical context, and impact of these items and practices on other cultures and people who had neither the luxury nor the power at the time to control how these images and items were used to denigrate and support the continued hatred and disrespect of them. That's a mouthful to say--yes, that's great that you loved your dolly, but as a "blackfaced" female human walking on this earth--many decades later--I can tell you that it was images of the Little Black Sambo, the Picaninny, the Black Mammy, Golliwogs, Aunt Jemima, and a whole host of racist, disrespectful "cherished" and "beloved" pop culture icons that helped make my own childhood and any attempt to understand my place in society, my beauty and self-esteem as a black girl growing up, quite hellish at times. Please save your stories for those who actually care! It is downright patronizing to think because you enjoyed something, that it had and continues to have no ill affects for others. I for one don't wish to hear more apologists try to rationalize why some racist foolishness should be continued to be celebrated in the 21st century! People, we can do far better. I know we can.

At 11:57 AM, Blogger minniemoovs said...

Slaves imitated processional dances of the Seminole INdians..???? Where did you get your information?
The black slaves imitated their white plantation owners..they just weren't hip enough to realize it and ended up satirizing a dance that was already made at their experience.

At 2:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't sure about the origin of this musical style/dance.. and was delighted to learn that it was in mockery of the silly mannerisms of the upper class. I find it quite wonderful. Listen to Golliwog's Cakewalk by Debussy… it embodies the humor and music that is alive in every person. The piece itself 'snubs' and mocks it's 'superior', the Tristan and Isolde refrain. On the other hand, you can plainly see how someone would look at the storybooks/characters as racist.. Although i don't think that is the origin of interest in them (as some kind of racist relic), but rather people are interested in the books simply because they connect with them on a personal level.


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