Remember context when looking back

Dear Readers of the Vermont Cynic,

Kake Walk, perspective of the era and lessons learned applicable to today.

We were interviewed for the Cynic series regarding Kake Walk. We do not argue against its demise but because the mention of it is taboo and it is included in a series on racism, UVM may miss an important opportunity to learn lessons from the past applicable to today. We urge you to read the online version of this perspective.

We attended UVM from 1962 to 1967 and participated in 1965 as walkers, as coaches and younger brother of a walker , and band member and editor-in-chief of the Cynic (LM). We were in the Boulder Society and the Peace Corps and our lives involved health care and human service. We and the vast majority of people on campus and involved in Kake Walk were not racist.

Context matters. The late 1950s and 1960s were turbulent times in the U.S., following decades of wars, an emerging middle class, assassinations of political leaders, an existential cold war and an awakening to racism from some extraordinarily brave and visionary leaders.

We can’t speak about the earliest years of Kake Walk but can of the period in which it was essentially a Winter Carnival and did evolve. One useful lesson is that society’s adaptation to problems is never easy, fast and effective enough, particularly when viewed from a half-century later. How will you (we) be judged in 2066 for the response to the hatred, racism and xenophobia now confronting us? Kake Walk was a winter carnival weekend in the dead of Vermont winter that was a focal point for intra-collegiate competition largely among the “Greek” houses, but also involving independents. 

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It was a social weekend with a king and queen election, skits, dances, concerts with famous artists, snow sculptures of remarkable detail and usually with social meaning and community spirit which provided an economic boost for Burlington. Many alumni returned year after year with great affection for UVM. The athleticism was challenging and training and competition serious business.

The routines were a mixture of gymnastics and coordinated “dancing” in which two people looked and acted as one. The black face, done to mask the identity of the walkers (see online) was something people were sensitive to and the makeup did change to light-green face (1964) and green-and-gold face, the UVM colors (1965). Makeup was only used on the nights of the competition.

From a Walker’s point of view, no makeup would have been fine. Uniforms were the fraternity colors. That the routines came from plantation days was recognized, but on the positive side the athletic skills were quite challenging and admired.

Senior faculty members were the judges. There were two nights of Walking competition with a full-house and tremendous spirit. For the competitors it was intense: two-minute routines requiring as close to perfection as possible.

We posit that the standing room only audiences came to see a highly respected competition by teams they knew had spent serious months preparing to be more proficient and creative than the others, and that they did not come to see a denigrating racial practice.

There was tremendous mutual respect among teams and coaches. Winning a prize for the Walking, sculptures or the King and Queen was huge. The thought of this being racist was not a factor, other than a rising awareness of the issue of race in America.

UVM was not insensitive to the racial issues regarding Kake Walk and while the efforts may have been inadequate, might UVM, an institution in an essentially uni-racial state, have been a bit on the leading edge of the sensitivity to racial issues by trying to change Kake Walk?

We believe much is missed with racism as the lens in which to view all of Kake Walk. A moral undercurrent in the early ‘60s at UVM helped usher in changes a few years later, so perhaps there might be some sense of pride or at least recognition of efforts by UVMers?

Would insight and more effective intervention by the adult leaders from the University and Burlington have allowed this Winter Carnival to be modified and the good parts saved?

It was improbable given the radical changes of the 1960s but it seems like the importance of the positive features of that weekend are now being considered with a Winter Carnival among the options. If so, learning from the past might allow for a more positive perspective on such a future event.

Experience and wisdom provide lessons that a) there are no absolutes so context and nuance matter, b) many people of a wide variety of backgrounds now have needs that others should try to understand and assist with, and c) one should use caution when applying labels such as “racism” to a whole group or period of time as the efforts and accomplishments of the change-agents within may be lost.

We are pleased that there may be an opportunity for open consideration, exchange of ideas and dialogue so that the best possible lessons from the past are learned and applied to issues of racism, prejudice and inequality for which principled and courageous moral leadership and action are needed now.

Yours truly,

Norman Coleman (’66), MD, DSc (h.c.)

Warren Kaplan (’66), DVM

Laurence Miller (’66), MD

Larry Roth (’67), MBA