Six Words: 'You've Got To Be Taught' Intolerance

May 19, 2014
Originally published on May 20, 2014 7:46 am

NPR continues a series of conversations about The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Every so often, NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into those six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition.

"You've Got to Be Carefully Taught". Those six words form the title of a song from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's South Pacific, the wildly popular musical revolving around cross-cultural love affairs in the South Pacific during World War II.

That phrase — "You've got to be carefully taught" — is also a popular entry in The Race Card Project's inbox. More than a dozen people have offered submissions quoting those six words in some way.

Let's begin with a little context. The musical South Pacific, which opened on Broadway in 1949, won several Tony Awards the following year. Then, years later, it became a hit movie.

To say South Pacific was successful would be an understatement — it was a blockbuster. But it also drew critics and controversy. It covered uncomfortable territory. Its romantic tension was based on interracial romance, a strong taboo at the time.

Even so, the soundtrack topped the charts. Songs like "Some Enchanted Evening" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" were in heavy rotation on the radio and on record players around the country.

And judging from the inbox at The Race Card Project, the message behind the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" has resonated with those who love the South Pacific soundtrack, like Kathleen Ziegler of Lino Lakes, Minn. She says she first heard that song on her family's record player.

"I had three older sisters," she says. "We used to put the records on a lot, as we were cleaning, especially. And we'd have it turned way up and we learned all the songs."

The sisters would sing together, Ziegler says, and the lyrics to "You've Got to Be Taught" stay with her, even today.

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 different shade
You've got to be carefully taught.

"I just remember hearing [the lyrics] when I was young, and it made me very sad," Ziegler says. "I had parents who did exceptionally love us and taught us to do the same. And I just thought, how can people be taught to hate, especially children?"

Ziegler was raised by parents of German descent during World War II. She remembers that the patriotism of that time was also steeped in bias.

"One of my earliest memories is knowing that you were supposed to hate 'Japs.' We used to say, 'Bombs over Tokyo,' and drop something on the ground," she says. "I never thought of it as being a hateful thing — then."

But those are words she would never say today, Ziegler says. "No, no. That's offensive. [But] that was what we were taught. Or, what we heard."

Love Stories With A Cultural Twist

What people hear and see in South Pacific are classic love stories with a thorny cultural twist. What happens, for instance, when "boy meets girl" becomes "all-American boy meets Asian girl in wartime setting"?

Perhaps Oscar Hammerstein was challenging the democratic principles at stake in World War II. In 1958, Hammerstein was on The Mike Wallace Interview, hosted by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame. "South Pacific had two love stories in it," Hammerstein told Wallace. "They both concern, in a different way, race prejudice."

In the interview, Hammerstein explained that one of the love stories involves a plucky American woman named Nellie Forbush.

"Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse, is in love with a Frenchman, and when she finds out that he was once married to a Polynesian woman and has two Polynesian — no, half-Polynesian — children, she runs away," he explained.

"She's shocked by it, and she's awakened later when she fears he's dead, and then suddenly she realizes how unimportant was her prejudice, how important it was that she loved him and how much she wants him back, no matter what kind of children he has," he said.

"What we were saying was that ... all this prejudice that we have is something that fades away in the face of something that's really important," Hammerstein told Wallace.

So, love wins ... sometimes. Because the other love story, Hammerstein explained, "is about a young Marine who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl on the island."

Well — spoiler alert: Despite the burning desire between Lt. Cable and the island girl, named Liat, their differences keep them apart.

A Deliberate Message?

At the time of South Pacific's release, its theme of racial and romantic tolerance was just too much for some. Some members of the military complained that "Carefully Taught" ruined the flow of the musical.

When the show went on national tour in the 1950s, two Georgia state lawmakers were repulsed after seeing it, and said a song justifying marriage between races was offensive. One of them, Rep. David C. Jones, wrote in a letter, "We in the South are a proud and progressive people. Half-breeds cannot be proud."

Scholars suspect that Hammerstein knew he would strike a nerve with South Pacific. He had tucked liberal messages into previous productions.

Larry Maslon, a Broadway historian who teaches at the graduate acting program at New York University, says he has always thought of Oscar Hammerstein as a preacher, "In the way that I think of Abraham Lincoln as a preacher, or Leonard Bernstein as a preacher. Lincoln used the White House, Bernstein used the conductor's podium, and Oscar used the theater," he says.

"And all of his shows offer a kind of benign choice, it seems to me: that tolerance is probably better than prejudice; that enlightenment is probably better than ignorance," he says. "And I think he appealed, in the way that Lincoln did, actually, in his second inaugural address, to the better angels of our nature."

Nearly 70 years ago, Hammerstein's message of tolerance was largely about race and romance. But on so many levels — race, sexual orientation, class, religion, gender — the challenge of reaching across differences is still relevant today.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. And now The Race Card Project . It's where conversations about race and cultural identity begin with exactly six words. This morning, six words famously sung in a popular movie in the 1950's.

KATHLEEN ZIEGLER: My name is Kathleen Ziegler, I'm from Lino Lakes, Minnesota which is near the Twin Cities. My six words are 'You've Got To Be Carefully Taught.'

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SOUTH PACIFIC")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (singing) You've got to be taught to hate and fear. You've got to...

MONTAGNE: That was a much better way to do it than you might be familiar with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SOUTH PACIFIC")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (singing) It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear.

MONTAGNE: That song, "Carefully Taught" is from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific" set during World War II. NPR Special Correspondent Michele Norris curates The Race Card Project and she tells us why those six words and that song have such staying power.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: You've got to be carefully taught is a popular six word entry in The Race Card Project inbox. We received more than a dozen entries quoting those six words in some way. And let me begin here with a little context. "South Pacific," the musical, won several Tony Awards in 1950 when it was on Broadway and, then years later it became a hit movie.

To say "South Pacific" was successful would be an understatement. It was a blockbuster. Yet, it also drew critics and controversy. "South Pacific" covered uncomfortable territory. Its romantic tension was based on interracial romance: a strong taboo at the time. Even so, the "South Pacific" soundtrack topped the charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SOUTH PACIFIC")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (singing) Some enchanted evening you may see a stranger...

NORRIS: Show tunes like "Some Enchanted Evening" and "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right out of My Hair" were in heavy rotation on the radio and on record players.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SOUTH PACIFIC")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (singing) I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair. I'm going to wash that man right out of my hair and send him on his way.

NORRIS: And judging from the inbox at The Race Card Project, the message behind the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" has resonated with those who love the "South Pacific" soundtrack. Kathleen Ziegler first heard that song in her family's home.

ZIEGLER: We always had the albums - I had three older sisters and we used to put the records on a lot, and as we were cleaning especially. And we would have, it turned it way up and we learned all the songs and we'd be singing all the songs.

NORRIS: Does that melody still live in your head?

ZIEGLER: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. (singing) 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 our dear little ear. You've got to be carefully taught. (speaking) And it just, it doesn't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SOUTH PACIFIC")

WILLIAM TABBERT: (singing) 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 carefully taught.

NORRIS: That's from the original Broadway soundtrack, William Tabbert there singing the words that have stuck with Kathleen Ziegler ever since.

ZIEGLER: I just remember hearing them when I was young, and it made me very sad. I had parents who did exceptionally love us and taught us to do the same. And I just thought how can people be taught to hate, especially children?

NORRIS: Kathleen Ziegler was raised by parents of German descent during World War II and she remembers the patriotism back then was at times steeped in bigotry.

ZIEGLER: One of my earliest memories is knowing that you're supposed to hate Japs. We used to say bombs over Tokyo and drop something on the ground or something. And I never thought of it as being a hateful thing then.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But even the word 'Jap' today, that's not something you would use in everyday language, is it?

ZIEGLER: No. No. No, it's offensive. But that's what we were taught or what we heard.

NORRIS: What people hear and see in "South Pacific" are classic love stories with a thorny cultural twist. What happens, for instance, when boy meets girl becomes All-American boy meets Asian girl in wartime setting? Perhaps Oscar Hammerstein was challenging the democratic principles at stake in World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE WALLACE INTERVIEW)

OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN: Well, "South Pacific" had two love stories in it and they both concern in a different way race prejudice.

NORRIS: That's Hammerstein talking on a 1958 TV show called "The Mike Wallace Interview." Yes. That Mike Wallace of "Sixty Minutes" fame. First, Hammerstein explains that one of the love stories involves a plucky American woman named Nelly Forbush.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE WALLACE INTERVIEW)

HAMMERSTEIN: Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse is in love with a Frenchman. And when she finds out that he was once married to a Polynesian woman and has two Polynesian - no half Polynesian children, she runs away. She's shocked by it. And she's awakened later when she fears he's dead. And then suddenly she realizes how unimportant was her prejudice; how important it was that she loved him and how much she wants him back, no matter what kind of children he has.

NORRIS: Love wins - sometimes.

HAMMERSTEIN: The other love story is about a young Marine who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl on the island.

NORRIS: Well, spoiler alert here: Despite the burning desire between Lieutenant Cable the American and the island girl named Liat, their differences keep them apart.

The theme of racial and romantic tolerance was just too much for some in the 1940s and '50s. Some members of the military complained that carefully taught ruined the flow of the musical. When the show went on national tour in the early '50s, two Georgia State lawmakers were repulsed after seeing the show and said a song justifying marriage between races was offensive. One of them, Representative David C. Jones said, in a letter, quote, "We in the South are a proud and progressive people. Half-breeds cannot be proud." That's the end of his quote.

Scholars suspect Oscar Hammerstein knew he would strike a nerve with "South Pacific." He had tucked liberal messages in previous productions.

LARRY MASLON: I always think of Oscar as a preacher.

NORRIS: That's Larry Maslon. He is a Broadway historian. He teaches at the graduate acting program at NYU.

MASLON: I think of him as a preacher in the way that I think of Abraham Lincoln as a preacher, or Leonard Bernstein as a preacher; Lincoln used the White House, Bernstein used the conductor's podium, and Oscar used the theater. And all of his shows offer a kind of benign choice it seems to me: that tolerance is probably better than prejudice; that enlightenment is probably better than ignorance.

NORRIS: And I think that he appealed, in the way that Lincoln did actually, in his Second Inaugural Address, to the better angels of our nature.

HAMMERSTEIN: Well, what we were saying was that just what Nellie says in her one of her last scenes: All that is piffle. All this prejudice that we have is something that fades away in the face of something that's really important.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT TO BE CAREFULLY TAUGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) 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. You've got to be carefully taught...

NORRIS: Nearly 70 years ago, Oscar Hammerstein's message of tolerance was largely about race and romance. But on so many levels - race, sex orientation, class, religion, gender - the challenge of reaching across differences is still relevant today.

MONTAGNE: NPR special correspondent Michele Norris curates The Race Card Project. And today, in partnership with NPR's MORNING EDITION, The Race Card Project receives a 2014 George Foster Peabody Award in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.