If That Don’t Take the Cake

Yesterday was my birthday, so this morning I had leftover cake for breakfast. A slice of deliciously decadent chocolate cake layered with the lightest fluffiest chocolate mouse and a rich red ribbon of raspberry. All topped with the most amazing slightly chewy slightly gooey fudge icing. Simply heaven.

I had heaven for breakfast.

As I was eating the cake I had a vivid flashback of a time when I was 10 or 11 years old in elementary school. The school, in Newark, didn’t have a lot of property around it. There were houses on either side, within 50 feet. There was no field of grass behind it. Just an asphalt playground. One basketball net was attached to the side wall, and one to the chain link fence. There were three, tall, wide, old oak trees for shade, with small rings of dirt around their trunks. We used those trees as bases when we played games.

Once a year there was a day when we weren’t allowed to go out on the playground at lunchtime. The volunteer-moms were outside preparing for the annual fundraiser: ‘The Bazaar’. We would watch out the window with anticipation, as they set up for the festivities.

It was an exciting day! There would be an opportunity to play games of chance, and to win prizes. I might even win a goldfish, by tossing a ping pong ball into a bowl. I ran outside when the bell rang at 3:15, and scoped out all of the stands.

One of the games was called Cake Walk. I walked up and watched what was happening. There were numbered pieces of cardboard in a circle on the ground. Each person would stand on one, and then hop or step from one number to the next as music played. When the music stopped, a number was called, and if a person was standing on that number they would win a prize.

I handed the volunteer-mom my ticket and ran over to a cardboard number. The music played and we began walking around in a circle. When the music stopped, my number was called. I was ecstatic! I jumped up and down. I ran over to the table to see what I had won. The mom handed me my prize. A whole entire unwrapped cake on a plate.

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. I don’t remember what kind of cake it was. I think it could’ve been pineapple-upside-down. I only remember it wasn’t chocolate. And it was no goldfish.

So, here I was at The Bazaar, holding a whole-ass cake. As I moved to each new activity I had to find a safe place to put the cake. Then I had to remember to bring it with me to the next stand. And when it was all over, I had to walk all the way home carrying this cake. My very own 4-city-block-literal-cakewalk.

The rest of the day is blurry. I know I felt proud in the moment when I won the cake. I know it was awkward to carry. I don’t know if that cake made it all the way home or not. Over time the memory faded, and the full story, like so many others, is lost. Buried somewhere in my mind.

As I finished a slice of heavenly cake this morning I decided to look up the origins of the cake walk game. I learned that the original cake walk was played by African American Slaves. They would dress up in their finest clothes and dance around mimicking the stuffy mannerisms of rich white folks’ dance moves. Whoever did the most outrageous over the top dance impersonation would win a cake as a prize.

The cake walk became a minstrel act, appropriated by white men in black-face, who thought they were making fun of black folks. They had no idea that they themselves were actually the butt of the joke. Eventually black actors began performing the cake walk on stage in front of laughing white audiences, who still were not aware of the original intent of the dance.

Slowly, over time the cake walk morphed into a game. This game that was still being played in my schoolyard, so many years later.

Isn’t it just wild how verymany seemingly innocent things are tied up in our country’s history of racism and oppression? So much of our memory is blurred. Faded. So many stories lost. Buried.

It’s never surprising, but always fascinating to me, how even the sweetest and simplest of our memories- the stories we tell ourselves- are tied up in our personal or collective historical trauma….

…nothing is ever as simple and sweet as it seems. Today, I enjoyed two pieces of cake for breakfast. And for dessert, I’ll likely have guilt and shame.


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