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You've Got to Be Carefully Taught

You've Got to Be Carefully Taught

Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific shows the limits–and power–of mainstream entertainment in addressing weighty social topics.

Stephen Akey

In South Pacific (1949), that piece of hoary Americana beloved by community theater directors everywhere, Nellie Forbush must overcome one obstacle before winning the man of her dreams and ushering in the obligatory happy ending of a typical Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. A rival suitor? Domestic obligations prevailing over her heart’s desire? A pile-up of comic misunderstandings? No, the impediment standing in the way of her happiness is rather more primal: The apple-cheeked, all-American heroine is a racist, and until she can overcome her horror at the discovery that her dreamboat French suitor, a French widower of impeccable taste and sensitivity, has fathered two mixed-race children by his deceased Polynesian wife, she’s going to deprive herself of the glorious romantic finale that the audience has every right to expect. Maybe South Pacific isn’t quite so hoary after all.

I hesitate to put forward Oscar Hammerstein II as an exemplar of mid-century liberalism, and indeed he has been judged and found wanting by progressive theater critics of our time. Writing in American Theatre, Sravya Tadepalli claimed that the similarly loaded King and I “reeks of white savior-ism and an imperialist gaze.” The title of Tadepalli’s 2021 article gives the game away: “Can The King and I Be Decolonized?” No, it can’t. As for Hammerstein’s earlier Carmen Jones, his rewriting of Bizet’s Carmen with a wholly African-American cast and setting, many such critics consider it simply beyond the pale. “The show is a figment of Hammerstein’s imagination,” wrote Hilton Als in The New Yorker (2018), “and he is to blame for what’s stupid about it.”

And yet I do put forward Oscar Hammerstein as an exemplar of mid-century liberalism. His critics are at least partly correct. You don’t have to be in love with the jargon of woke progressivism to see the manifest limitations of Hammerstein’s sociopolitical worldview, with its unavoidable suggestion of noblesse oblige. Indeed, those limitations were apparent as long ago as 1955, when James Baldwin savaged the movie version of Carmen Jones for its “really quite helpless condescension” and its “total divorce from anything suggestive of the realities of Negro life.” Further, Baldwin wrote in “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” “the movie cannot possibly avoid depending very heavily on a certain quaintness, a certain lack of inhibition taken to be typical of Negroes.”

Well, everything dates eventually, not only mid-20th-century liberalism but critiques of mid-20th-century liberalism. If Oscar Hammerstein’s “brotherhood of man” liberalism seems patronizing and self-protective, the terms Baldwin used to describe his distaste for Carmen Jones induce a similar queasiness. In particular, Baldwin’s apparent need to assign each performer a precise gradation of skin color—Dorothy Dandridge “is a sort of taffy-colored girl,” Harry Belafonte “is just a little darker,” Joe Adams “is also rather taffy-colored,” and Pearl Bailey “is quite dark”—finds no corollary in today’s discourse about race. Furthermore, Dandridge, thirty-two at the time of the filming and playing a character that was hardly an ingenue, was not, as Baldwin repeatedly called her, a “girl.”

For all that, Baldwin’s essay still sounds like James Baldwin: angry, elegantly phrased, piercingly honest. Are we prepared to dispense with the moral authority of his work because some of his prose seems a little dated around the edges? And shouldn’t we grant a similar license to Hammerstein, whose efforts at resisting injustice and racism were couched in the popular formulas of his time? For that matter, can we not grant ourselves some license? We shall be very lucky—even the most progressive among us—if future generations regard with a like indulgence our own efforts at resistance.

I grew up on rock and roll and came to musicals only later in life. (Not even the greatest among them will ever supplant my passion for Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.) Hence, when I attended the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific in 2015, I was totally unprepared for “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” the rousing act two number sung by the second American racist of the show (Lt. Joseph Cable) to the first American racist (Nellie):

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. 

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.

No, it’s not “Anarchy in the UK,” if your taste in musical protest runs to the incendiary. Still, the unimpeachable rightness of the lyrics surely discomfited some members of the original 1949 audiences paying good money for their God-given right to be entertained. According to Lauire Winer in Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical (2023)

When South Pacific played in Atlanta during a 1953 national tour, two state legislators introduced a bill to ban works that ‘had an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.’ Representative David C. Jones explained that ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’ justified interracial marriage and as such was a threat to the American way of life.

Representative Jones was right. In its own crowd-pleasing, Broadway-friendly way, South Pacific was a threat to the American way of life, insofar as America in the late Forties and early Fifties was a deeply segregated country and millions of its citizens were determined to keep it that way. Obviously, nuanced treatment of weighty social topics is not the raison d’être of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, yet some of Hammerstein’s storylines and song lyrics do concern themselves with surprisingly fraught subject matter. Sun-drenched, prairie-fresh Oklahoma!, for example, trades obsessively in sex and death, and Carouseltreats Billy Bigelow’s desperate poverty with a relative frankness not to be expected in a feel-good musical from 1945. 

There’s only so much we can reasonably ask of mainstream entertainment. I myself wouldn’t want to endure a musical with righteous preachments at the expense of a good song and dance. Yet Oscar Hammerstein confronted audiences—gently, gently—with certain realities about race and class and disenfranchisement in America and the world. He got people humming a tune about the horrors of racism. 

Stephen Akey is a memoirist and essayist who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of Raccoon Love, Culture Fever, Library, and College. His essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Republic, the Hedgehog Review, and elsewhere.

Image: A tableau from the final scene of the film production of South Pacific, 1949. (Wikimedia Commons: Original photographer unknown; publicity still from a souvenir program)