You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught

By Susan Kuebler

The year was 1949 when one of the most popular musicals of all time made its debut on Broadway.  Based on a book by James Mitchner, “South Pacific” was an instant hit and another feather in the cap for its creators, the incomparable team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It went on to become played at numerous theaters around the United States and Great Britain.  In 1958 it was made into an Oscar-winning movie.

Most people are familiar with many of the hit songs from this production. Who hasn’t loved the romance of “Some Enchanted Evening” or sympathized with “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”  The musical centers around two romances set on an island in the South Pacific during World War II.  The main relationship is between a young American nurse stationed on the island and an older, expatriate French plantation owner.  The secondary romance involves an American Lieutenant from a prominent Philadelphia family and a native girl from the island.

What was truly remarkable for the time (1949 remember) is that both romances dealt with issues of racism and prejudice.  For Rodgers and Hammerstein the most important song in the repertoire was the one sung by Lt. Cable bemoaning the prevailing attitudes that kept him from his true love in “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”  They resisted all efforts from theater owners to legislators from Georgia to have this one song removed from the show.

If there is one thing that the 2016 election has shown us, it is that these attitudes of racial superiority are still among us.  So it is appropriate to go back to 1949 and Lt. Cable to understand why this is true.  Because white supremacy has survived, to the dismay and amazement of many. Before the song begins, he exclaims “It’s not born in you.  It happens after you’re born.”  Then the words:

“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“You’ve got 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.”

Three verses that sum up exactly how the poison is spread from generation to generation.  No, it’s not born in you.  It’s something you learn as you grow up.  From your parents, from their friends, from your friends.  And we’ve seen it happening right before our eyes, at the Trump rallies with little children dressed in “Hang the bitch” tee shirts.  We’ve heard the stories of children bullying other children, telling them to go back to Mexico, or Pakistan, or wherever.  The woman who was threatened on a New York subway because she was wearing a head scarf.

The question we need to ask is “How can this be stopped?”  It can be stopped by calling it out and naming it for what it is.  It can be stopped by carefully teaching our children that all people are valuable, that they should not be afraid “Of people whose eyes are oddly made” or “People whose skin is a diff’rent shade.”  They must be carefully taught that people whose name is Mohammed or Juanita are their equal in God’s eyes, that we all are children of God. And that just because someone has a lot of money or a lot of power, it does not necessarily make them right.  They must be carefully taught to stand up for what is right and to speak truth to power.

For some, perhaps for many, it is too late to undo the damage.  But in a world where a deadly disease such as smallpox has been eradicated, we can also hope to wipe out the disease of racism in our lifetimes.

One comment

  1. Huh–not much for musicals, but I’d give this one a shot, if only for that song. “Mississippi Burning” had a similar relevatory moment in a dialogue between the deputy’s wife and the FBI agent..but not in song form obviously. That’s the first time it hit me that racism’s taught, hearing.those words. Then in college I read more about it. Scary how that works–everybody’s equal one day, the next–nope.

Share Your Thoughts?