cakewalk: n. (1) an absurdly or surprisingly easy task (2) a strutting dance popular at the end of the 19th century, developed from an African American contest in graceful walking that had cake as a prize.
climbing wall: n. (1) a wall specially designed for climbing and often built to simulate a rocky surface (2) an amenity widely cited as an example of the excesses of the elite corporatized university; Related: v. “to be climbing the walls”: to suffer unpleasant feelings, such as worry, in an extreme way; to feel agitated.
Cakewalk is a term that was famously used to describe the alleged ease with which the United States would prevail in the war in Iraq. We know how that turned out. Common spin-offs include the phrases “piece of cake” to describe tasks that seem easy or certain to be achieved and “takes the cake” to those who succeed in the endeavor. The opposite of a cakewalk is an idea or quest that fails because it is “half-baked.”
Climbing wall is a term that was reportedly first used to describe a fitness trend toward simulated rock climbing walls in trendy gyms and fitness clubs. With the “amenities wars” that began to escalate in the 1990s at colleges and universities desiring to attract and induce students to pay steadily increasing tuition costs.
In the African American culture of the antebellum South, the cakewalk was a dance by which slaves satirized the manners of their masters. Ignorant of the dance’s satirical function, masters invited slaves to participate in dance contests with cake was as the prize. The exaggerated movements are said to have origins in the Kongo culture of Africa, where the forward and backward motions symbolized social defiance, as in the proverb “we are palm trees, bent forward, bent back, but we never break.”
There are also some interesting connections to a key symbol of the Akan culture of West Africa, the Sankofa bird, whose backward-facing head and forward flight illustrate the need to remember and learn from the past in order to move forward. Combine the two symbols in the subversive power of backward and forward motion in the cakewalk and you have a powerful symbol of justice and resilience–much like the second line of the jazz funerals that I watched as a child at the cemetery around the block from my New Orleans home.
By contrast, the climbing wall has come, rightly or wrongly, to symbolize a range of ills in modern culture–from individualism, to materialism, to growing inequality–for which colleges and universities have become scapegoats even as both the costs and contributions of education to democratic society continue to grow. In those debates, we see the movement from climbing walls the noun to climbing the walls as a verb in vexed consideration of the social, economic, political, and spiritual dimensions of contemporary life.
In this blog, I shall chronicle some of the oddities, ironies, controversies, hypocrisies, triumphs, and questions of justice and ethics in our ordinary and extraordinary times from my perch at the intersection of law, religion, ethics, politics, academia, and the frequently counterposed domain of the “real world.” Some days will be cakewalks chronicling amazing ideas, insights, and examples by which to move forward. Other days be climbingwalls in which struggles for justice seem to recede to a very distant horizon even as we forge–or slog–our way on. There may even be recipes.
In a time in which freedoms of speech and inquiry are under threat, I plain to speak plainly, but pointedly, calling it the way I see it. After all, the power to name is the power to norm. I can’t promise balance, but I hope to be fair. I invite you to join me with your comments or follow along as a fellow traveler, keeping in mind this advice.