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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Schubart: Haunted By Kake Walk

Courtesy of UVM
In this archive photograph, greasepaint in Blackface style is being applied to a Kake Walk contestant in the late '50s at UVM.

Growing up in the fifties in Morrisville at People’s Academy, our spring event was 'Kake Walk' - a parody of a racist amusement staged by slaves for their owners. The owners, king and queen of Kake Walk, sat in large chairs and watched as slaves high-stepped towards them in pairs with their arms pitched up and back. The grand prize for the highest steppers was a kind of “plantation cake.” Hence the name Kake Walk for an event that persisted in Vermont in my childhood and at UVM until 1969. As a middle school student I remember sneaking into the auditorium and watching the seniors audition. In 1958, my Vermont education ended when I left to go to Phillips Exeter so I never got to try out.

I’ve never served in political office, choosing instead to work in the business and non-profit sectors as my contribution to Vermont. And I must say I have little sympathy for Northham’s dithering. In fact, I now believe he should simply resign as a public service. But I’m haunted by how much this feels like my own “there but for the grace of God” moment.

If I’d had the chance, at 17, to participate in 'Kake Walk', I wonder if I’d have done it. I’d hardly ever seen an African-American except in popular entertainment – certainly not in Morrisville and only rarely in the whole of Vermont. I’d yet to study and understand our genocidal and exploitive history with regard to minorities. And if confronted today with an image of myself engaged in such a spectacle I’m sure I’d be speechless.

I’d admit the truth but I’d also want the chance to apologize. And after that I’d want a redemptive path – an opportunity to find and earn forgiveness and to continue to contribute. I wouldn’t want my civic life ended for a bad judgment made in youthful ignorance.

It’s hard to see how society can achieve an appropriate balance here. But it does seem that in order to go forward a mechanism is needed to allow for confrontation and atonement – because it’s only by chance that I didn’t don a tuxedo and high-step out in blackface myself.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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