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You’ve got to be carefully taught


In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical hit of 1949, South Pacific, relationships between races and those who differ in physical, cultural and opinion are examined in the song “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” Based on James A. Michener‘s Tales of the South Pacific (1947), the story follows a World War II navy nurse who falls in love with a French plantation owner with mixed-race children. An associated plot line involves a U.S. lieutenant’s romance with a Tonkinese woman. Exploration of the societal conflicts within these characters and others around them raises questions and validity of predetermined behavior. As Lieutenant Joseph Cable realizes the dilemma of his situation, he begins to understand how prejudicial behavior is not innate, rather taught, even if surreptitiously, during childhood. As he sings of this anguish, his refrain is, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”


Even mild prejudice can easily transform to hate with toxic action close behind. A human tradition with extended historical perspective, the intransigence of such feelings becomes overtly evident frequently and can only be subdued with effective communication and an emphasis on similarity of purpose rather than divisive rhetoric. The real test of commitment to an ideal of harmony is through actions rather than superficial posturing. It becomes obvious that through peaceful coexistence, familiarity can breed acceptance and understanding rather than contempt. It is much easier to pin labels and perceived negative attributes to faceless and anonymous entities rather than a cordial neighbor who does no harm. It is through objectification that the misery of hate germinates.


Our area is a microcosm of humanity with both shining attributes and blemishes. Along with examples of peace and goodwill, the occasional outburst of unacceptable behavior is also present. Without constant guardianship of the basic and bedrock philosophy of our society, erosion of personal freedom, societal liberty and constitutional guarantees is in jeopardy. When misinformation and emotional diatribes are permitted, we all suffer the consequences. On the international stage, examples are rampant; thankfully sporadic locally. The politics of fear and anger can be found everywhere and, if cultivated through separatist behavior, invasive and rotten to the core of our being.


All of us are guardians of the future through lessons of the present with relevance to the past. If there is one overriding dictum of the past, it is that conflicts, both regional and worldwide, are preceded by fear, hatred and misinformation carefully presented through political manipulation. In our society, an informed, lawful and reasonable electorate is the primary defense against repetition of past follies and avoidable disasters. What are you teaching your children and neighbors?


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 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


Rodgers and Hammerstein

South Pacific


Theatre Journal © 2000 The Johns Hopkins University Press




“You've Got to Be Carefully Taught”







Richard Rodgers


Oscar Hammerstein II

“You've Got to Be Carefully Taught” (sometimes “You've Got to Be Taught” or “Carefully Taught”) is a show tune from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

South Pacific received scrutiny for its commentary regarding relationships between different races and ethnic groups. In particular, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” was subject to widespread criticism, judged by some to be too controversial or downright inappropriate for the musical stage.[1] Sung by the character Lieutenant Cable, the song is preceded by a line saying racism is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born…”

Rodgers and Hammerstein risked the entire South Pacific venture in light of legislative challenges to its decency or supposed Communist agenda. While the show was on a tour of the Southern United States, lawmakers in Georgia introduced a bill outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”[2] One legislator said that “a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.”[2] Rodgers and Hammerstein defended their work strongly. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.”[2]