Course Makes Kake Walk Archives Available for Study
Release Date: 09-15-2010
A Kake Walk program from 1963, one of the many original materials included in the Center for Digital Initiatives latest collection.
The memory of UVM's annual Kake Walk event lives on today, 41 years after its termination. By some memories, it was a much-loved winter tradition that brought the student body together in celebration every February; in others, it was racist performance with roots in blackface minstrel shows. Now, a collection in the library's Center for Digital Initiatives gives shape to those memories by presenting original materials archived during the tradition's 80-year life span.
The collection, "Kake Walk at UVM," was developed as part of an online class, co-taught this summer by UVM librarian Robin Katz and associate professor of anthropology Brian Gilley (now at Indiana University). Six undergraduates and three continuing education students delved into the history of Kake Walk and helped curate the new collection, launched on Sept. 15.
In a rare opportunity for undergraduates, students produced content, descriptions and subject headings for the site -- significantly adding to what little scholarly information exists on the topic.
"I think students felt, and rightly so, that they were given a special chance to do something they wouldn't usually get to do," Katz says. "That is cool for them, but it was also a strategic decision for us."
Katz, who received her master of library science degree at Kent State University where she learned a thing or two about archiving controversial materials from an institution's past, says that community involvement in the project was important to her and to Gilley. "That's why we opened it up to Continuing Education students as well," she says -- to give a variety of university stakeholders a role in describing and presenting this period in UVM history.
The CDI collection documents this history with photos, programs, financial records, letters, and notes kept by organizers, who Katz says were "hyper legacy-conscious." Community input will continue to be part of the collection, as visitors have the ability to leave comments on each entry.
In the time since its end, Kake Walk has been a source of campus reflection, especially in recent years -- professors from across the disciplines touch upon the roots of the event in their classes and a 2004 library exhibit (covered in this article) looked back on the tradition, as well.
But not much in the way of scholarly literature has delved further into this complex topic. Just one chapter in one book -- The University of Vermont: the First 200 Years by emeritus professor of sociology James Loewen -- has been published to date on Kake Walk.
Making this digital archive of related content available online will hopefully help change that, Katz says. Although some would question the wisdom of collecting and publishing racially charged images, giving scholars the opportunity to study them is important, she argues. "Collecting materials is not an endorsement," she explains, "It gives people the opportunity to study what was wrong." Conducting this conversation with the use of the original materials fills a need -- at UVM and elsewhere -- for "evidence-based discussion and primary source-based teaching and research," Katz says.
The other effect of making the collection available online is to counter pieces of incomplete information that already exist on the internet and to provide context for those casually Googling the topic. One student, Matthew Powell, a UVM junior, was inspired to take the class when his own search left him with questions. "When I first heard of Kake Walk I immediately searched for it on the internet, and all I found were a few eerie videos that further roused my interest," Powell says. "The best part about the collection is the fact that it is online. It isn't in a museum or closed in a book somewhere in the library, its right at your finger tips and can be shared and discussed across the Web," he says.
Sarah Sprayregen, one of the continuing education students who audited the class, agrees. The UVM development officer says, "Anybody who's going to do future scholarly work will be able to Google or do any kind of search and find this information, which is pretty incredible." A 1971 graduate of UVM, Sprayregen also had personal reasons for taking the class: she was a student during the last two years of Kake Walk's reign.
Giving alumni and others a chance to reflect on the past is important, she says, and seeing some of the images in the collection "is pretty chilling," she adds. "Even from my point of view, where I grew up seeing Kake Walk. (When you see it today) you think, 'Oh, my gosh!'"
"By talking about the past, we can learn who we are," Sprayregen says. "Once you understand who you are, you can move forward."
Join the discussion
- On Monday, Oct. 4, a lecture will be given by Tommy Defrantz, professor of music, theater arts, comparative media studies and women's and gender studies at the Massacusetts Institute of Technology, on "Kake Walks and Dance Competitions: Race and Performance in American Popular Culture." The lecture will take place at 7 p.m. in Royall Tyler Theatre.