A New Perspective on Progress

In class this week, I was constantly questioning the cakewalk and whether one should view it as a tool of resistance. I seemed to be very fixed on the idea that it could not have been the tool that Brooks claimed it was, as it both seemed to be offensive and did not seem to be successful or recognized in the moment that it was performed. After much reflection, I have realized that I was approaching it from too harsh a guideline. In today’s society, we are pushed to strive for the best and to not be content until we have reached the place that we hope to end up. This is the mindset that I was applying to the cakewalk. I was demanding that it would adhere to a standard that would be impossible for it to have during the time it was made—it would have never been allowed to go on. In doing this, I lost sight of the importance of baby steps in controversial issues, such as racial struggles. 

Paving the way for progress is important, even if one is forced to do so in a transitional way. This is what Williams and Walker are doing with In Dahomey and its controversial inclusions, such as the cakewalk and black actors in blackface. They are getting their foot in the door, flipping the script normally used against blacks, and helping to set a foundation for the racial change to come. Representation is the first step to good representation. The reviews that we read may have played down the cultural and political significance of the cakewalk and the reclamation by the blacks, but history has not. Williams and Walker were exploiting the cakewalk and playing up other negative stereotypes for their gain and to the advantage of the black theater community. The very fact that we study this play so many years later supports the importance and overall impact that Williams and Walker had in paving the way for blacks on stage and in the American culture. Change starts with one person or group of people and their reclamation makes it possible for the larger reclamation.

This situation reminds me a lot of the way that I, and many others, view the n-word. The n-word is a word that I think is inherently derogatory and rooted in hate. There are blacks, however, who see the reclamation of it as empowering and a form of resistance that is used in both art and everyday speech. While it may appear to be problematic, there is some correct thinking within it. Their opinion of it is what really matters, as it contributes to their individual liberation. The n-word was used to define the blacks of the past, but now they are using it to represent themselves and attempting to redefine its very meaning. They are using the word in their own context and with their own agency. This action will perhaps also be a gateway for cultural change, or at the very least, a conversation starter.

2 Replies to “A New Perspective on Progress”

  1. I completely agree. I also think that, while there was a lot of representation that was clearly pandering to a white audience, there were also a lot of subtleties in the play that were clearly addressed to their black audience. So while there was degradation, there was at the same time a quiet empowerment to the play.

  2. Despite the more dated aspects of the work, I think the play still holds up as an invaluable stepping stone towards greater forms of African American expression, which Williams and Walker intended, while still attempting to make a profit for themselves. Yet, I think their use of the cakewalk, even in hindsight, is not as offensive as other aspects within the play. Also, the problem with the cake walk within the play is not merely its inclusion, it lies with the white audience’s failure to understand its importance within the realm of black culture. Instead of its subversive and mocking tone towards the cultural practices of upper class whites, many audiences saw the dance as an anti-climactic end to a strange final act of the play. Even the royal family participated in the dance, showing their ignorance of the dance’s true purpose in the play and how white audiences are not in on the cultural joke and purpose of the dance and In Dahomey in general, not grasping the significance which we view within the work from a modern perspective.

Comments are closed.