Walking for dat Cake

Walking for dat Cake

Walking for dat Cake

Location:            Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University  (Durham, North Carolina)

Title of Song:     Walking for Dat Cake

Composer:         Braham, David

Publisher:          Wm. A. Pond

Year & Place:    1877; New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:               Music B-156

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  hasm.b0156

Basic Description

This image depicts a warm scene of revelry and dance inside of a wooden dwelling.  Young couples move about the floor in formal attire with the boys in suits and the women in dresses. The adults in this image line the walls and the outskirts of the floor. One couple, consisting of a male and a female watch the festivities from the back, far left portion of the space. while another couple stands in the far right of the background near the entrance of the house. Dancing in the far left foreground, a matronly woman balances a plate of food on her head. She wears glasses as well as an apron. Mirroring her movements and creating a symmetrical composition, directly across from her is an older gentleman with a pipe in his right hand. In the background, directly in front of the window, a small, thin boy participates in the festivities by dancing on top of a table. Illuminating this joyous evening is a large, lit, fireplace as well as a candle on top of the mantle. Portraits, chairs pushed against the walls and a clock lining the wall remind the viewer of the space’s domestic character.

Personal Description

The fifteen individuals packed into this small space make this image extraordinarily crowded.   The source of the music is also conspicuously absent. The occasion for this dance and the individual identities of these people are also missing pieces of contextual information that the viewer cannot visually access. One might infer that these constitute free blacks from their fancy dress and participation in an activity of leisure.  All that the viewer can know for sure, however, about this image is that there is a group of black people dancing. In this way, it contains elements of caricature, as it reduces black identity to dance. Still, there are other dichotomies exist in this image. First, the artist chose not to create a grotesque illustration scene of debauchery that would have been more in line with the hypersexualized, revival-esque dance with which African-Americans were associated. Instead, the illustrator drew a restrained scene of civilized dance. This is, however, punctured by anomalies. A woman dances with food on her head and a boy dances on top of a table. Other characters are not clearly adults or children, straddling a strange space between youth and maturation.  It is as if the artist wanted to suggest that they can’t quite get it right. Thus, this image combines subtle stereotyping with an indirect critique of middle-class African-American life.

Reality Check

Reality Check - Walking for Dat Cake - Schomburg Digital Image Archive

Sketch from February 26, 1870 Harper’s Weekly

“There are now about one hundred buildings occupied by the schools of this [New York] city.  While all of these buildings are convenient and healthful, the newer buildings are a great improvement on those erected in former years.  They have been constructed on the best principles of arrangement, fitted with conveniences for teachers and pupils, supplied with the best kind of furniture, and are warmed and ventilated by the best apparatus.  They vary in size, some occupying only two lots, other six or seven.  It has been found that large buildings are much more economical and convenient than small ones; and not infrequently two thousand pupils, and even a larger number are well accommodated.

The sketches that illustrate this article will give the reader a very complete idea of the internal arrangements of our common schools.  The first gives an exterior view of one of the school buildings; No. 2 shows a lesson in object teaching in a class-room in a colored school; No. 3 a girls’ class in calisthenics; No. 4, a girls’ class in drawing; No. 5, a writing lesson.  These sketches were all taken from actual scenes and are accurate representations of them.”


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