The Life and Times of Cornbread Johnson
by Damon L. Fordham
"Mama's little baby love short-run short-run, Mama's little baby love short-nin bread!"
So sang Cornelia Johnson on a cold Mississippi morning in 1918 while the wind blew through the threadbare cabin that she and her family called home. Her husband Jason eagerly awaited the breakfast Cornelia was about to serve while their eight-year-old son Percy who was called "Cornbread" because of his love for the delicacy, smiled and bounced his head in time to ComelWs singing.
Jason looked at his son in mock seriousness and asked, "Boy, what you so happy about?"
"I like that song Mama sings about shortnin' bread." replied Cornbread.
Jason laughed and gave his son a playful shove as Cornelia poured the hot, steaming grits on their plates and the Johnson's began to eat their breakfast.
After they finished their morning meal, Jason said good-bye as he headed out for anoth day's work at the Natchez railyard. Meanwhile, Cornbread reluctantly went into the cold outdoors to get some water to heat up to bathe for school.
When the school bell rang later that day to signal the ending of the school day. Cornbread ran home with the other boys, stopping along the way to make balls out of the remaining frost on the ground, which were put to quick use in a frost ball fight. After the fight, Cornbread quickly went home as the cold air ached in his nostrils. But when he got home, Cornbread was horrified by what he saw.
"AWWWWWWWW!" cried Cornelia in tears as several of her neighbors held her and tried to calm her down while some other women weeped and groaned in the same fashion. When Cornbread ran to aid his mother, the sight of the little boy brought greater cries of anguish from the women. Fortunately, Cornbread's Uncle Jake was standing nearby and took the little boy aside to explain what happened. While Jason was at work, he had tripped over a railroad track and had gotten his foot caught into it. Unfortunately, Jason was unable to free himself as the train approached. The screaming women only made Cornbread more upset, so Uncle Jake took him to his house for awhile.
Several weeks later, Cornbread was inside the cabin studying next to a kerosene lamp when he overheard Cornelia speaking to he friend Martha outside near the clothesline. It turned out that the meager earnings that Cornelia made from doing laundry was simply not enough to feed and clothe herself and Comb read properly. Cornbread had noticed that his clothes had gotten a bit more ragged and his meals had gotten skimpier lately, but he knew that his mother was still sad over his father's death, so he hadn't complained to her much.
Suddenly, he had an idea. Cornbread remembered something that he had seen in the streets of Jackson when the family went there. When Cornelia went off to deliver the clean clothes, Cornbread grabbed his hat, put out the kerosene lamp, and headed to town. When he got to the Natchez town square, Cornbread turned his hat upside down, put it on the ground, and began to sing: "Mama's little baby love short-nin short-nin. Mama's little baby love short-nin bread!"
Soon, a crowd gathered as Cornbread added to the song by doing a dance that he saw the man do in Jackson. He put his hands on his hips, whistled the tune, and tap-danced in a circle. After Cornbread completed the circle, he did a backflip that ended with a split that generated great laughter and applause from the mostly White crowd of onlookers. However, Cornelia had just finished dropping off a basket of laundry to the mayor's house when she saw the end of Cornbread's performance.
"PERCY JOHNSON!" screamed Cornelia as she ran to her son,"YOU STOP THAT FOOLISHNESS RIGHT NOW!"
"But Mama," said Cornbread, "look at this."
Cornbread proudly held up his hat which was now filled with coins and dollar bills. Cornelia stopped for a moment and said, "Well, you pretty good at dancing for real. But I want you to finish school so you can do something better than that to make money. Let's go on home."
Just then, a White man with a top hat, cutaway coat, and a droopy mustache approached them. "Excuse me there," said the man, "is this your boy?"
Yes sir." answered Cornelia, 'Why do you want to know?"
"I'm Sluefoot Sam the Carnival Man," explained the stranger. "I'm sure you've seen my traveling tent show." Cornelia nodded "yes, sir" in response. "Anyway, how would you and your boy like to make $100 a week for him to dance in my show?"
"Please, Mama, please?" asked Cornbread.
Cornelia thought about this. She would prefer that Cornbread would grow up to do something more respectable after he finished school, but poverty does not give you many choices. "Okay." she replied, "but just 'til we can get enough to move out of here and I can send him to a better school."
As it turned out, Sluefoot Sam was as decent as such men came and the money was good, but Cornelia's years of previous toil left her unable to physically cope with the constant touring and poor facilities that were available for Black performers. So a year later, Cornelia passed away, leaving Cornbread the unofficial ward of Sluefoot Sam. But the other Black performers of the Sluefoot Sam Carnival educated Cornbread to some of what he missed in school, the ways of the world, and the ways to make an audience laugh and smile. Thus the few months that Cornelia intended for Cornbread to stay with the show turned into several years.
As time went on, Cornbread became world-famous with his "Shortnin' Bread" song and dance which never failed to make audiences laugh and smile. But the years of traveling began to take it's toil on Cornbread, as he longed to settle down with a family and home of his own. He got his chance after performing in Los Angeles one night. After the show, he was approached by Odie Leonard of King Leonardo Studios, who offered Cornbread triple of what he was making at the time to make movies at the Leonardo Studios. Cornbread figured that since the opportunity was knocking, he should answer the door, so he accepted.
A short time later, Cornbread married a beautiful young dancer that he had been courting from the Sluefoot Sam Show named Dorthea Mills, and they settled into an apartment in South Central Los Angeles. Within months, Cornbread was on the way to becoming a family man, so the money from making films would come in handy.
Soon, Cornbread was about to make his first picture. It was called Darkie's Holiday and he was to do his famous "Shortnin' Bread" song and dance in one scene. The set was decorated to resemble a cotton field and Cornbread and the other actors were dressed in overalls and straw hats. As he was about to go into his routine, the director yelled, "CUT!"
"What's the matter, sir?" asked Cornbread.
"Look here, Shortening Bread!" shouted the director.
"Uh, sir, it's Cornbread," corrected Cornbread.
"Cornbread, Shortening Bread, what's the difference? Anyway, Instead of singing 'Mama's Little Baby,' how about singing "Mammy's Little Baby loves shortening bread,' since that song 'Mammy' is so popular right now?"
"But Mr. Director," answered Cornbread, "My Mama used to sing that song and I never heard no Colored man call his Mama "Mammy" in real life, and..."
"Boy, who's the director, you or me?" asked the director. "Sing it like I tell you to or you and that woman of yours will be back in Mississippi picking with the chickens in a heartbeat! Do I make myself clear?"
Anger burned through Cornbread's body as he gazed at tbe director with pure hatred. Even Sluefoot Sam had never talked to him like this. The cast and crew watched tensely in sympathy as Cornbread thought about his wife and baby-to-be. His eyes flashed and his face slowly froze into a smile with clenched teeth, and the anger seeped down to his feet that began to dance as Cornbread began to sing through his forced smile, "Mammy's little baby love short-nin short-nin, Mammy's little baby love short-nin bread."
"ROLL 'EM!" shouted the director as he smiled in triumph.
Several months later, Darkie's Holiday had it's premiere. All indications were that the film would be a success as the audience laughed and applauded at nearly every scene, particularly Cornbread's "Shortnin' Bread" routine. The audience of Hollywood movie stars and politicians gave the film a standing ovation while Cornbread, Dorthea, and the rest of the film's cast stood up in the back of the theater and bowed. After the film, Cornbread and Dorthea were walking out of the theater when he saw Governor Benson speaking with a group of actors.
"Say," said Governor Benson, "Aren't you the fellow who did that "Shortening Bread" routine in the movie?"'
"Yes, sir" beamed Cornbread as he proudly held his wife, "I sure am!"
"You're a talented fellow!" said Reggie Chase, the star of detective movies.
Cornbread noticed that the actors and politicians were all going in the same direction. "Y'all fellows mind if I join y'all?" asked Cornbread. Reggie Chase replied, "Oh, er, we're all going to split up and go home once we get out of here," as they proceeded to go in the same direction. Cornbread looked puzzled until another Gast member waked up to Cornbread and said, "Man are you crazy? Those fellows was on their way to the Hollywood Society Club and you know they don't let no Colored people in there!"
Cornbread tried hard not to show his anger in front of his wife. He grumbled to himself, good enough to make'em laugh, but not good enough for their club."
"Come on, honey." said Dorthea, "Let's get Percy, Jr. from the babysitter and go home."
Cornbread and Dorthea got into the new luxury car that he bought with his earnings from the film and drove in silence as they went to pick up their child and go home. Once they reached their apartment on South Central Avenue, Dorthea took Percy, Jr. to his crib to sing him to sleep. However, she noticed Cornbread going into the bedroom alone and closing the door. Dorthea quietly followed her husband and slowly opened the door.
She saw Cornbread sitting on the bed imitating the voice of the President of the United States saying, "Mr. Johnson, I'm pleased to meet you. You are the greatest thing in films since Charlie Chaplin."
"Thank you, Mr. President," said Cornbread in his normal voice.
"Make yourself at home," said Cornbread in the President's voice. "Everyone here at the Hollywood Society Club is glad to see you. Governor Benson, meet my friend Mr. Percy Johnson."
"Quite a pleasure, Mr. Johnson," said Cornbread as he imitated the Governor. "I understand that you're up for the Academy Award this year for your role in Darkie's Holiday. You certainly deserve it."
Cornbread broke down and cried, as his wife slowly closed the door, never letting him know, what she had seen.
Cornbread's luck did not improve with the passage of time. While he made more films with names like Cottonfield Follies and Coon Town Jamboree, these movies went out of style when Civil Rights groups began to boycott theaters that showed them. To some people, these films were ugly reminders of darker days for darker people. To add to his misery, while he was away fighting in the Second World War, Cornbread received word that his wife and son lost their lives in an automobile accident.
Many years later, Cornbread sat alone in his small, musty apartment watching television when he noticed an old clip of himself doing his "Shortnin' Bread" routine from Cottonfield Follies. Cornbread smiled at the memory of himself in his younger days. However, Cornbread's smile dropped when Arthur P. Stonewallow III of the National Negro Association appeared on the screen and said, "Cornbread Johnson and his stereotyped song and dance routines were relics of slavery that we as African-Americans have fought hard to overcome!"
"What you mean'slavery time'?" shouted Cornbread to the screen, "My MAMA taught me that song!"
Mr. Stonewallow continued, 'Today, the Atrican-American comedian has come a long way. They now have more freedom to express themselves and their reality in any way that they choose." This was followed by a clip of a young comedian going into a profanity-filled monologue about his sexual abilities.
"Hmph!" grumbled Cornbread, "Like that's supposed to be better."
Cornbread then took a shower and walked several blocks away to the Hollywood Society Club. Upon his arrival, he changed into a pair of coveralls, got a mop and bucket, and began to clean up the dining room floor. Usually when Cornbread began his duties, the diners and club members ignored him, but as he passed one table, a handsome, well-dressed Black man looked up from his meal and said, "Good afternoon, sir."
Cornbread looked up and smiled, "And good afternoon to you too, sir. You sure got good manners, you must be from the South."
"I sure am!" replied the gentleman, "I'm originally from this place called Spartanburg, South Carolina. Ever heard of it?"
"Spark Town!" smiled Cornbread. "Sure did! I played at Club Manna down there in the forties with this blues singer named Pink Anderson! I hear tell his son Little Pink plays some pretty mean blues now himself. HEY-ain't you that fellow that plays that professor with that family on TVT
"Yes, sir." replied the gentleman. "I'm Fred Cauthen."
"Mr. Cauthen, "smiled Cornbread as he shook the gentleman's hand, "I'm Percy Johnson, but you can call me Cornbread."
"Cornbread Johnson!" smiled Mr. Cauthen. "You know, my mother used to sing that "Short-nin' Bread" song to me when I was little. When I was a boy, I saw you on TV singing that song and I looked at my mother and said, 'Mama, he's singing your song!' Ever since then, I wanted to be on television. So Mr. Johnson, I have one thing to say to you."
"What's that?" asked Cornbread.
"Thank you, sir," replied Mr. Cauthen as the two men embraced.
A few weeks later, Arthur P. Stonewallow III pulled up in his Rolls-Royce wearing a tuxedo and entered the auditorium for his role as an announcer for the National Negro Association's Annual Positive Role Model Awards. After the orchestra began to play, Mr. Stonewallow got up on stage and said, "My friends, we are here tonight to present an award to a man who has done much which his show The Professor's Family to show the true intelligence of the African-American and forever erase the negative image of films like Darkie's Holiday and Cottonfield Follies. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Mr. Fred Cauthen."
The audience applauded as Fred stepped on to the stage. "Thank you, my friends," he began. "It is good to receive an award like this and we have come a long way. But I cannot forget the bridge that brought me over to this point. And here is that bridge, the star of Darkie's Holiday, Mr. Percy "Cornbread" Johnson!" Cornbread walked onstage in a tuxedo holding his head as high as his eighty-year-old body would allow. Some of the audience responded with polite applause while others like Mr. Stonewallow sat with their arms folded in stony silence.
Cornbread shook Fred's hand and said, "Y'all gotta excuse me, I'm an old song and dance man and not much of a speaker. Now, I just heard one of y'all call what I used to do as being I 'negative.' Well, I just got to say that it ain't me that's teaching the children today to curse in public and to have bad manners!" The audience gasped and applauded at Cornbread's bluntness while Mr. Stonewallow turned red with anger.
"You see," continued Cornbread, "My Mama taught me the song that helped me to feed my family with clean, honest money, but she also told me that a long journey starts with a small step. What I did was the small step that led y'all to get Academy awards and things like that today. But I got to say one more thing before I go..." Cornbread held the microphone closer and sang, "Mama's Little Baby Love short-nin, short-nin, Mama's Little Baby short-nin bread!"
The audience cheered as Cornbread put his hands on his hips and tap-danced in a circle slower than he did in bygone days but still in an effective fashion. The rhythm of the audience clapping and the younger people shouting "Go Cornbread! Go Cornbread!" caused a surge of strength to flow through Cornbread's legs. The audience eagerly anticipated the famous backflip, but when Cornbread completed the circle, he gleefully took the microphone and said, "Sorry, can't do that no more!" The audience roared in laughter as Cornbread tap-danced his way off the stage and the audience gave him a standing ovation. After Fred and Cornbread embraced in triumph, Mr. Stonewallow stormed out of the auditorium.
The next day, Cornbread arrived at the Hollywood Society Club. His boss saw him and said, "What are you doing here? Today's your day off!"
I know that." replied Cornbread.
Fred Cauthen came in shortly after this. He went over to Cornbread and his boss and said, "You see, Mr. Johnson isn't here today as a janitor, he's here as my guest. Waiter, please send us some champagne."
As the two men sat down, they smiled warmly at each other as the waiter arrived with the champagne. As Fred poured the champagne, Cornbread said, "Young man, I have one thing to say to you."
"What's that?" asked Fred.
Cornbread sipped his champagne and replied, "Thank you."