Every month, the staff of the Kansas City Museum asks a local expert in some field to talk about a piece from the museum's collection for its Community Curator program.
This month's talk is by Glenn North, the poet-in-residence at the American Jazz Museum, and it focuses on a painting that made North uncomfortable at first.
The painting depicts the champion cakewalker William Henry Joseph Cutter Brown, known popularly in Kansas City as "Doc Brown." (Cakewalking is a kind of dance that originated on slave plantations in the 18th century, and was popular through the 19th – more about that in a bit.)
The Portrait of Joseph "Doc" Brown(1896), by local African American painter Millard C. Haywood, depicts the former slave in a long suit, tipping his top hat and smiling.
"Initially, I was uncomfortable in that part of African American history," North said. "We talk about minstrelsy and some of the things that were forced on black entertainers at the time for them to have to act, to kind of step and fetch, and jive and shuffle."
Cakewalking has its roots in southern slave plantations. According to North, white land-owners would hold social functions where they'd dance ballroom dances like the minuet. Slaves would watch and then mock those dances at their own parties. Whites grew to like the parody and began to hold dance competitions for their slaves. The prize for the winning couple would be a cake. (That's where expressions like "She takes the cake," or something easy being "a cakewalk" or "a piece of cake" comes from.)
"Eventually, white people then started wearing blackface in minstrel shows and would poke fun at how black people danced, so there's this weird history associated with it," North said. "But what I think is the most interesting thing is that even during times of severe oppression, black cultural expression becomes important because of how we're able to express rebellion."
Joseph "Doc" Brown became a popular Kansas City personality in the late 19th century, and his life was extensively documented by the Kansas City Star, at a time, North writes, "events in the black community were not considered newsworthy."
Kansas City Kansas composer Charles Leslie Johnson wrote a ragtime hit in 1899 called Doc Brown's Cake Walk (it's the background music in the audio version of this story – just click listen above). Composer John Philip Sousa heard the tune when traveling through Kansas City and began performing it nation-wide.
After North researched the history of Brown's life and cakewalking, his reaction to the painting changed. He writes in his essay for the Community Curator series:
I am forced to reconsider my original thoughts about the painting and I am confronted with its quiet beauty. Perhaps rather than portraying the stereotypical docile Negro on canvas, Haywood was able to capture the essence of a consummate showman. It seems that although Doc Brown's back is bent in the painting, it housed a spine as sturdy and erect as the red brick wall behind him. The confident smile and wave of his top hat lets me know that "Doc" Brown endured slavery, laughed in the face of injustice, possum trotted above racism, kangaroo hopped over poverty and cakewalked beyond the specter of minstrelsy into a class of his own. Yes, History is a tricky thing for black folks. It is often times a source of pain and shame. But people like Doctor William Henry Joseph Cutter Brown provide these incredible occasions when history offers us joy and pride.
Glenn North will be talking about "Doc Brown" and cakewalking as part of the Kansas City Museum's Community Curator Series on Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 6:30pm at Union Station. See videos of past Community Curator lectures here.