Drag Culture’s Slavery Roots

“Le Cakewalk”. I first heard it from my roommate on a gap year in Paris. A quick search of the word revealed historic images of performances, mostly featuring Black people. Stunned at having never heard of it, I decided to dig further to understand the story behind this trend and how the French got so crazy about it.

My digging pointed me toward historian Channing Gerard Joseph whose research took me on an exciting a journey of the former slave experience, in particular, 19th-century queer life.

“secret balls run by former slaves began to pop up”

Visualise this: slave-owning madams pretentiously sauntering around in snug corsets, their stiff-backed male counterparts with top hats and canes. The enslaved Africans found it hilarious and made a mockery of their former owners – in dance form.

Plantation owners, without a clue they were being mocked, would be intrigued by slaves’ strutting dances and would award a cake to the best performers, hence the term ‘cakewalk’.

Resistance and rebellion remained the core of this art form. After emancipation, secret balls run by former slaves began to pop up. Attendees would gather to dance, including performing their best cakewalks, dressed in their most glamorous outfits. It was a time of hope and excitement for freed slaves and many wished to express themselves, against social norms. Despite no laws against cross-dressing existing at the time, these balls were deemed immoral and regularly raided by police with occupants falsely charged with running brothels.

“a safe space for men to gather, play folk songs and perform dances”

Joseph focuses on a particular early defender of these LGBTQ rights – William Dorsey Swann. Nicknamed “the Queen”, Swann was known for wearing long silky dresses and extravagant accessories. Swann’s resistance against a police raid resulted in his dress being torn to shreds followed by a ten-month stint in jail.

The details of those arrested were published and the men became targets of contempt. The publicity put a spotlight on their cross-dressing balls and many sought to weigh in on their activities. Swann and his fellow ball participants were branded “a band of negro men with…androgynous characteristics,” and a “lecherous gang of sexual perverts” by an array of Doctors.

Despite all this, Swann’s cross-dressing balls continued, providing a safe space for men to gather, play folk songs and perform dances, including the infamous cakewalk. The activities of Swann and other men like him cemented America’s perceptions of masculinity; with very low tolerance of men who veered from gender norms, including within the Civil Rights Movement.

The cakewalk took on a life of its own. The dance that once entertained slave-owning Americans also remained popular in white American circles and soon funnelled into mainstream entertainment.

As the trend grew, white people had also begun to take part in cakewalk competitions. A white American couple performed the cakewalk in Paris, kicking off the craze among Europe’s upper classes, who perhaps found the dance’s lack of conformity and seriousness a refreshing release from the strict social protocol of the time. With the dance firmly ingrained in popular culture, its original meaning was gradually lost.

Cakewalk depicted in ‘Der Tanz’ by Albert Langen Verlag (1906)

The activism found in the cross-dressing balls at the turn of the 19th century set the stage for future LGBT liberation. As Joseph notes, these men took their freedom, crafted an identity for themselves and fought for their right to it. I now experience contemporary queer culture through a new lens – in everything from voguing sessions to watching RuPaul’s Drag Race – with endless pride and gratitude.

Discover Channing Gerard Joseph’s work on this topic in his upcoming book House of Swann

Images from Albert Langen Verlag and James Gardiner Collection via Wellcome Library – Creative Commons license.