George W. Walker on Countering White Supremacism, Connecting with African Culture, and early 20th-century African American Stage Dance

In this article (link below), William Walker (half of the famed Williams and Walker duo and husband of the “Queen of the Cakewalk,” Ada Overton Walker) speaks about his story in dance, battling against racism, an early community of Black American artists in New York City, and his role in “real” coon dancing.

Reflecting back on minstrelsy, Walker gave a sad pronouncement: “The one fatal result of this to the colored performers was that they imitated the white performers in their make-up as ‘darkies: Nothing seemed more absurd than to see a colored man making himself ridiculous in order to portray himself.”[1] Walker and Williams sought to use dance and song as a tactic to counter these pernicious “darkie” stereotypes.

Sandwiched by advertisements to keep skin soft and white (e.g., Lablanche Face Powder), Walker speaks of his dancerly argumentation against white supremacy. The “coon” dancer, was a twin-attack by white supremacist to 1) mock and make grotesque visible aspects of African Americans (e.g., facial features and fashion) while 2) appropriating their dances. Walker maintains they deflected these attacks by not including the grotesque elements, and they countered by pushing the presence and value of Black American artistry on stages nation-wide and internationally (i.e., what he calls “real” coon dancing). Walker presents their earliest interaction with Dahomeans (within present-day Benin) and hints (although I wish there were more detail) about making connections to African arts, including dance. Against imperialist and white supremacist fantasies that western political presence and miscegenation “civilises” African “primitivism,” Williams and Walker sought to display African artistry as being intricately cultivated and complex.

While Williams and the Walkers captivated the world with their Cake-walk, they also assembled an all-star team of Black American artists to produce In Dahomey (1903), a Broadway–then international–sensation that presented an alternative vision of Africans against the dominating imperialist propaganda. It had a solid run of 53 shows in New York City before touring for a year in England and Scotland. The cast then returned to the US for an additional 40-week tour.

Here is George W. Walker’s 1906 article!

Resources

These are some books where you can learn more about George W. Walker, minstrelsy, Black Vaudeville, and the Africanist presence in American and global performing arts. To find more material, check out my bibliography of many resources for Dance Studies.

Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. Princeton, 1988.

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. New York: Palgrave-Macmilla, 2000. 

Stearns, Marshall Winslow, and Jean Stearns.Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Walker, Sheila S., ed. African roots/American cultures: Africa in the creation of the Americas. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.


  1. [1]“The Real Coon on the American Stage,” The Theatre (August, 1906).

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