More than a Name Change

For the past few months, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon has been planning a pastry-centered event to bring together our supporters and raise money for our mission. We thought it had a fun, delicious theme, centering the fundraiser around a “cakewalk.”

Recently, it was brought to our attention that the origins of the “cakewalk” are rooted in slavery and cultural appropriation, which run decidedly counter to our values. After discussion with staff, board and partner organizations, we’ve changed the event to “Bake to End Hunger.” We will still celebrate the contributions of talented chefs, offer sweet and savory tastes and drinks, and have a great time raising awareness and money to end hunger in Oregon! We are switching the name and axing the cakewalk, but the change runs deeper.

As an anti-hunger organization, ending hunger necessitates knowing the facts and working to undo systems of oppression. Hunger is often caused by systemic inequities in gender, ability, place and most of all, race. Our work is to see and shine a light on these systems, which is why we feel responsible to call attention to this particular case and reframe the event, and renew our commitment to equity and racial justice.

It’s important for us to draw attention to the story of the cakewalk* because it’s yet another example of how our society quietly erases and denies our legacy of racism. In the same way that modern-day “cakewalks” have a racist history that’s largely unknown (especially to many with racial privilege), so is much of our language and many of our society’s institutions. Although the modern re-enactment of the cakewalk has a smaller impact on lives than the criminal justice system, educational institutions, financial institutions and neighborhoods, they share the fact that they’re interlaced with racist histories and current practices that still disadvantage people of color. These patterns have their origins in our country’s history and we can’t undo them until we start to see them.

It was our oversight in not doing enough research before launching an event that invokes racist stereotypes and histories. It’s a reminder that the more we build the racial diversity of our team, and community, the better our chances of removing our blinders. We hope by being transparent with our decision-making process we can open dialogue and work together to actively undo racism.

We invite your questions, comments, concerns and suggestions. Please direct questions to Annie Kirschner, Executive Director at [email protected].

We’d like to thank all the vendors and partners who have contributed to the event—we know how many of you hold the issue of hunger close to your hearts and we appreciate your support.

We hope to see you at Bake to End Hunger on Thursday, May 11! Together, we’ll eat, drink and work end hunger in Oregon!

-Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon

*The History of the Cakewalk

The cakewalk first began by the name “prize walk,” on southern plantations during pre-civil war era, as a competition in which enslaved African Americans subtly mocked the dance steps and style of white plantation owners and the winner chose a cake. Without grasping the meaning of this danced resistance, the owners of enslaved dancers began attending and soon controlling the cakewalk by selecting winners themselves. The phrases that we know today about a “cakewalk” or “piece of cake” being something easy and straightforward came from the idea that the better and more graceful the dance, the easier it looked.

In the 1870s during the Jim Crow era as the cakewalk grew in popularity, the music accompanying the dance gave rise to an initial form of ragtime music. White musicians started to play the music and mockingly performed the cakewalk in blackface minstrel shows, further appropriating the tradition and dehumanizing the participants it depicted. There is evidence that later some African Americans made efforts to reclaim the dance, performing the cakewalk in blackface alongside white performers. As historian Terry Waldo noted, the cakewalk became about “Blacks imitating whites who were imitating Blacks who were imitating whites.”

Furthermore, racist cakewalk imagery of people in blackface appeared throughout popular culture: in prints, sheet music, advertising and even toys.

After the Jim Crow era, perhaps in an attempt to erase the racist history, white American society moved away from the racist connotations and came to know the cakewalk as a fun game, and it has become a staple of school fundraisers, rural grange halls and holiday bazaars. The history and evolution of the cakewalk is just one example of the many racist histories that have been erased and subsequently perpetuated as something completely devoid of negativity—at least at first glance.

To learn more about the history of the cakewalk, we recommend this NPR article or this Smithsonian article.