Origin Of The Term ‘Cake Walk’

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the origin of the phrase “piece of cake.” Naturally, that got me thinking about cake which led me to eat cake, which led me to want to write more about cake so that I could eat more cake and not feel bad (all in the name of research).

So here’s another Wonder Why Wednesday featuring cake.

Where Does The Term “Cake Walk” Come From?

A task that is described as a “cake walk” is something that is done with relative ease. For example, beating my younger brother in ping pong is a cake walk.

The term has been around since the 1860s and can be traced back to a dance event that has roots in the Antebellum South of the early 19th century.

Here’s the thing though…the dance was actually quite racist. Bet you didn’t see racism coming up in a post about cake.

According to StuffYouShouldKnow.com:

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.

Seems harmless enough, right?

Wrong. The event was a way to mimic white society, but deep down it was a dance used to reinforce the social order by mocking it. The slave owners exhibited their power through this event by allowing their slaves to act white. It was as if to say, “the only time you can act like me is when I let you. And if you do it well, I will give you some cake that you took the time making.”

In the Jim Crow era things got even worse. Cake walks featured white dancers in blackface. They were acting as blacks who were awkwardly attempting to become white. It was seen as black’s desire to be like white people, not mock them.

Crazy, right?

Thankfully, as the years have gone on, America has done away with the racist cake walk ceremony and replaced it a term used to describe something so effortless that the act of walking would result in the prize of cake.

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