The Cakewalk

Black dancers perform the “Cakewalk” at the Pan Am Expo in Buffalo, New York, 1901.

The Cakewalk is an African American social and performance dance, derived from dances of corn-husking festivals. The Cakewalk was a traditional African American from of music and dance which emerged among southern slaves. Those who won the dancing contest would win a cake, from where the term is derived.1

Here’s where the history on the Cakewalk get’s a little fuzzy. Some sources say it began as a parody of the formal European dances of the white slave owners, but went on to become a popular attraction patronized by white landowners.2 Meanwhile other sources say “Black performers brought dances such as the cakewalk, the shimmy, and the Charleston to the American and European public, and in the process they challenged and redefined constructions of race, gender, and nationality.”3 Both very strong opinions on the same variety of music!

No Cakewalk On The Program For the State Convention of Afro-American Leagues–A Haytian Lecturer’s; “New York Age” (New York, New York) • 05-03-1890 • Page 2

I stumbled across an article that was published in Rochester NY on April 29th (c. 1890) praising the African American community, but bashing the Cakewalk. The article praises the African American women of Rochester saying “that in no city of New York are the Afro-Americans more thrifty then our people here… Our ladies [the African American “ladies” of Rochester] are educated and refined”4 Is this statement biased? Absolutely! I still was intrigued because this is perspective we don’t read don’t find very often — especially in the 1890s. The article continues, “Of course, Rochester, like other cities, has a few Afro Americans who can not appreciate a notable gathering of their own race at a banquet or a state convention as will take place in this city May 22. They will not be seen at the banquet because there is no cakewalk on the program”4 Ouch… This statement detracts from the compliment made towards the African American women of Rochester earlier in this newspaper article. This article praises the culture of African American women, as long as their culture is now one that appreciates “notable” things such as “banquets” or a “state convention”. They praise African American women for adopting white European ideals of sophistication and anything else is seen as “less than”. Problematic? Incredibly. The article is titled “No Cakewalk on the Program for the State Convention of Afro-American Leagues”. The author creates a division among the African American women of Rochester NY. It personifies naturalization which in this case I would define as: we’ll allow you to become part of our society, only if you become like “us” ( this “us” meaning white people). This author completely dismantles and discourages historically African American dances and ideals thus defining a superior and inferior culture.

Work Cited

1 Cakewalk. (2017). In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience. Retrieved from link

2 Dancers, New York, 1901: Getty Images link

3 Griffin, F. J. (2009). Cake Walk, Shimmy, and Charleston. Women’s Review Of Books, 26(4), 12-13. link

4 New York Age. “No Cakewalk On The Program For the State Convention of Afro-American Leagues–A Haytian Lecturer’s”. News/Opinion; New York, New York 05/03/1890 link

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”: a brief history

While browsing the African American Newspapers database, I came across an article/add for Miller Lite entitled “Miller Lite supports Black History Month.” The article encourages readers to buy Miller Lite beer by telling them that during the month of February, a donation will be made to the Thurgood Marshall Black Education Fund for every case of beer sold. This offer is also advertised by a radio commercial featuring an upbeat version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” featuring Deniece Williams, Al Green, Melba Moore, Roberta Flack, and Patti Austin. The Miller Brewing Company produced this recording in 1986, which the article states was the first recording of the song in 25 years.

We know this song today as the Black National Anthem. Personally, every time I sing or hear this song I am struck by the power of the lyrics, and the fact that the tune is so beautiful in its simplicity. Upon seeing this strange beer ad linked with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” I became curious about the history of this song, and how it became Black National Anthem.

James Weldon Johnson writing at desk

Contrary to common belief, this song was originally a poem, and was not intended to be an anthem by its composer. James Weldon Johnson wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900, and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, set the poem to music. James Weldon Johnson was a lyricist, poet, international diplomat, civil rights activist, and an important voice in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In February of 1900 he was asked to speak at President Lincoln’s birthday celebration, but instead wrote this song with his brother, which was performed at the celebration by 500 school children. While the Johnson brothers forgot about the song, the public did not. Children throughout the south continued to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and eventually it was sung all across the country. By the 1920s the song was so popular that the NAACP, with James Weldon Johnson as the chief executive officer, decided to make “Lift Every Voice and Sing” the official song. It is important to note that James Weldon Johnson called his song the “Negro National Hymn,” as he believed that a nation could have only one anthem, and didn’t want to further divide the country by separating the races.

Bob Cole, James, and Rosamond Johnson

While the song has been performed in many different genres including classical, jazz, R&B, and rap, I was surprised to see it used for commercial purposes to ultimately sell beer. This juxtaposition of capitalism with a song that calls us to never stop fighting for justice in the face of America’s racist past and present is fascinating to me. I understand that the Miller Brewing Company probably had great intentions for this project, as they committed to donate some proceeds to the Thurgood Marshall Black Education fund, which “provided scholarship support to the nations 35 historically Black public colleges.” Despite this aim, it is troubling to me that Miller Lite chose a song whose anti-racist message is in direct opposition with capitalism, a system built on the backs of enslaved Africans – a system that profits by exploiting and oppressing African Americans. The disconnect here leaves a pit in my stomach.
Here is a link to a video of the 1984 recording session of “Light Every Voice and Sing” sponsored by the Miller Brewing Company: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwWhu8tw4nU

I would like to leave off with some additional recordings of this song. When I searched the Jazz Music Library for recordings of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” all but one recording was instrumental, which invites us to make a comparison between renditions that include the lyrics and renditions that don’t. Here is a recording of Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on saxophone and Hammond organ. To you, does the song still have the same effect without lyrics? Is it as moving or is there something lost? Personally, while the lyrics certainly indicate that the song is about an acknowledgement of the past and a confidence in the future, I am still moved by the instrumental versions. The tonal shift from major to minor is powerful in and of itself and somehow gives me a sense of determination without saying anything… is this simply because I already know the words? Here is a recording of the Manhattan Four singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for comparison.

I am including the lyrics to “Lift every voice and Sing” here, as I find it crucial to read and internalize the mobilizing message of the lyrics themselves, rather than learn about the history as a separate entity. These lyrics urge us to come together to strive for a better tomorrow, while always remembering the pain and struggle of the past. What would James Weldon Johnson say to us if he knew that the message of this song is still just as relevant and important 107 years later?

Sources

  1. Bond, Wilson, Bond, Julian, and Wilson, Sondra K. Lift Every Voice and Sing : A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 2000.
  2. “Miller Lite supports Black History Month.” Chicago Metro News, February 25, 1989. Accessed October 6, 2017. http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=H56G59ROMTUwNzM0OTExNC4yMTA3OTk6MToxNDoxMzAuNzEuMjI4LjIyMQ&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=2&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=2&p_docnum=7&p_docref=v2:12912DF42BF1884F@EANX-12A25FAB38AEF4B0@2447583-12A25FABD35A4110@10-12A25FB12096C218@Miller%20Lite%20Supports%20Black%20History%20Month3
  3. “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” In National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1137484
  4. Edward A. Berlin. “Johnson, James Weldon.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 7, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2083946.
  5. The Best of Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff. Recorded January 1, 2001. Milestone, 2001, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 7, 2017. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C532408
  6. The Earliest Negro Vocal Groups Vol. 5 (1911-1926). Recorded January 1, 2000. Document Records, 2000, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 7, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C74556