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Signification, Objectification, and the Mimetic Uncanny in Claude Debussy's "Golliwog's Cakewalk"

de Martelly, Elizabeth

While these scholars help clarify the complicated history and signification of this dance, they tell only half of the story of Debussy's "Cakewalk," because they do not address the composer's invocation of Golliwog, a caricature of a minstrel caricature. I will synthesize the cakewalk's cultural history with analyses of how turn -of-the-century racist commodities, such as the Golliwog, reveals a permeable boundary between reified human subjects and fetishized objects within this particular historical trajectory.
In Debussy's "Cakewalk;' there are no human dancers at all, but a doll is evoked in their stead. Whereas in the popular European incarnation of the cakewalk, the human body is made to look puppet-like, Debussy takes the dance a step further in conjuring Golliwog. Golliwog is no ordinary doll, but one in whom a particularly painful history is congealed and concealed, and in juxtaposing this doll with the cakewalk, Debussy converges two uncanny signifiers of American slavery: histories of human objectification that had been repressed and resignified through historical layers of mimesis.

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Current Musicology

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Columbia University
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March 23, 2015