Carefully taught

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical show South Pacific opened on Broadway 71 years ago on April 7, 1949. The show was an immediate hit and ran for 1,925 performances. It was a huge hit by any measure, with a rich musical score that included such hits as Some Enchanted Evening, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, Bali Ha’i, There is Nothing Like a Dame, Cockeyed Optimist, Younger Than Springtime, This Nearly Was Mine, and You’ve Got to Be Taught.

My own years in musical theater have been enriched greatly by my participation in at least three separate productions of this wonderful show, as director, musical director, and actor, unforgettable experiences all. It’s a treat to be part of such a great show.

Despite its success, South Pacific endured controversy at first as some criticized the show for promoting interracial marriage, which one Southern legislator argued was a threat to the American way of life. Critics pointed to the song “You’ve Got to be Taught” in particular. It is sung in the show by Lt. Joe Cable, a white naval officer who falls in love with Liat, a Tonkinese woman. He sings the song that includes these lyrics: “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”

My thoughts tend to return to that song whenever I witness an overtly racist act or hear a racist remark. It prompts me to imagine the perpetrator as a child, being influenced by attitudes expressed by his or her family, playmate, neighbors, pastors.

An incident last night forcefully brought this back again. Enabled by Zoom, 73 of my friends and I were connected in a rehearsal of Voices, Chapel Hill’s community chorus. About 15 minutes from the scheduled end of rehearsal, everyone’s screens suddenly were blasted with an attack of screaming, radical right and racist invective and hand-scrawled messages of hate. We’d been hacked.

Stunned, we quickly ended our rehearsal and disconnected from one another, vowing to reassemble electronically in a few days.

I began to wonder what had led this person to feel so strongly about race that it prompted him or her to act on these feelings in such a violent way. Where were these attitudes learned, encouraged, supported? Infants are born innocent, free of prejudice. We have to be taught to hate and fear.

We have to be carefully taught.


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