It’s not hard to make a batch of short’nin bread. You cream together one stick of oleo margarine with a quarter-cup of light brown sugar, then mix in 1¼ cups of flour. You roll the resulting crumbly dough out on a floured board until it’s about a half-inch thick, then you use a fruit jar or jelly glass to cut it out into rounds.
Put the rounds in a greased and floured shallow pan, bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, and you’re done. It’s pretty tasty stuff.
Then, inevitably, you will remember a song that maybe your mama sang to you when you were being fussy, or maybe you sang it to your own kids: “Mama’s little baby loves short’nin, short’nin, Mama’s little baby loves short’nin bread.”
We think of that song as a simple nursery rhyme, just one of those ditties like “London Bridge Is Falling Down” that we sing to our children as we try to put them to sleep.
But “Short’nin Bread,” the song, is hardly innocent. As I began my research into short’nin bread, the cookie, it led me to some knowledge about the song I never expected to find. You know how, when you search Google, you type in the first word and it immediately gives you a list of suggested search phrases? I put in the words “short’nin bread,” and there it was, fourth in the list: “short’nin bread racist.”
So I followed those bread crumbs and quickly learned that the first published version of the song, attributed to the poet James Whitcomb Riley, begins with lyrics so utterly vile that I will not write them here. If you’d like to read them, just follow this link and scroll down a bit, and you’ll be as horrified as I was.
As I continued my research, I discovered someone else who was as horrified as I was. Her name is Barbara Hamm Lee, and she is the longtime host and executive producer of a public-radio show on WHRO in Norfolk, Virginia, called “Another View.” Her show’s mission is to discuss the topics of the day from an African American perspective. Back in March of 2019, Lee did a roundtable discussion show about the shocking roots of the song. I found that episode absolutely compelling.
I also found myself wanting to talk to Barbara herself about the song. I wanted to see what might happen if I, a white guy from northern Georgia, and Barbara, a Black woman from Virginia, sat down to have a serious conversation about short’nin bread. I emailed her, explaining my motives, and she quickly answered, happy to say yes. So a few days later, we got on the phone, and here’s a short, unedited section of our conversation about what we’d learned when we discovered the awful secret behind “Short’nin Bread” — the song, not the cookie.
Chuck: The first question I wanted to ask you is how you felt when you first learned the origins of that song, “Short’nin Bread,” after having sung its refrain to your own children?
Barbara: I was like, well, I blew that. And then my next step was to call my daughter and to tell her about the song and the history, and to tell her not to ever sing that song again to her daughter anymore. My granddaughter at that point was 9 or 10 years old, so she had already gone past that timeframe. But it was a conversation my daughter and I had again about breaking the pattern and making the change. And that’s really, really important. It was just a little ditty that we sang that got passed down to me, that you sang to your little kid while you're trying to get them to stop crying or when they're sitting on your lap and you’re just playing together. But if I have another grandchild or if I become a great-grandmother, that will not be a song that will be sung.
Chuck: Tell me about why it matters to break the chain, as you say.
Barbara: Some people may say, ‘Well, you know, if you don't make a big deal out of it, they won't even know.’ But that's not the point. The point is we should not be telling that story about ourselves, to pass on that negative image of ourselves. If we continue to perpetuate it, then it allows other people to think it's okay. And so they are allowed to continue it also. And that's just not right.
Barbara is absolutely correct, and our conversation turned my mind back to something I think about a lot. So many images and stories have been passed down through hundreds of years, and we think they are all innocent — because we learned them innocently, because they were taught to us by people who loved us and whom we loved. But we’re scared to ask ourselves about the harm we do if we repeat and perpetuate those images and stories after we learn what’s really behind them. I don’t want to be guilty of that anymore, because I believe it keeps me from living out the greatest commandment of all: to love our neighbors as ourselves.
But here’s the miracle: Because I stumbled upon the racist origins of that song, I met a remarkable woman named Barbara Hamm Lee, who was kind and willing enough to have a conversation with me. And in that conversation, we learned that despite our differences in skin color and background, we share dreams for the South, the region we both love and call home.
Early in our conversation, I told Barbara a little bit about my own background. I told her about how I’d spent several years at a publication that tried to chip away at some of the old Southern ideas that still keep too many of us apart. She asked me for some examples, and I told her about a podcast I hosted in which I interviewed the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis a few months before his death, seeking answers to this question: “Can the South be redeemed?” I told her how it almost brought tears to my eyes to hear that great civil-rights leader answer me so enthusiastically, “The South can be redeemed, and the South will be redeemed.”
“I agree with that,” Barbara replied. “First of all, there's a massive movement back to the South of people who are determined to bring the true history to life. And once people understand truly what really happened, and we can start to grapple with those issues, it will make us stronger and will bring us closer together. And you know? I think some of our Southern gentility, just our manners and so forth, will help to allow that to happen.”
She’s right. Just ridiculously, wonderfully right. Southerners — all Southerners — traditionally were taught to be nice to each other, to treat each other with gentility, as Barbara put it. And when we approach each other in that spirit, as Barbara and I did, we were able to talk about old wounds and how to evolve beyond them. We found we were on common ground. And I think I made a new friend I’ll be able to keep for a while.
It’s not that hard to listen, good people. It’s not that hard to try and understand. And so much reward awaits us if we are willing to have conversations like the one I had with Barbara.
Before I said goodbye, I told Barbara that if the danged cookies weren’t so crumbly, I’d ship her a batch to Virginia. She laughed heartily and said she might try them. But as for the song, she’s done with that forever. I am, too.