One of the most controversial songs ever penned for a hit musical (Broadway and film) was in the smash hit ‘South Pacific’, the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece of the 1950s.
It was called ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ and panned all sorts of racism, segregation and discrimination. Lieutenant Cable had just rejected a Polynesian beauty, the lovely Liat (due to the American racism of the time), and the song went thus -
‘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!’
It was a courageous move by the great composers in the face of nationwide condemnation of the song. One legislator said, “A song justifying interracial marriage is a threat to the American way of life.” Rodgers and Hammerstein resisted US-wide pressure to remove it, even if it led to the show being a flop. It wasn’t, and the American Civil Rights movement followed not long afterwards.
The song could be applied to so many different countries throughout the world. The modern-day Middle East, countries of Africa where wholesale slaughter continues apace. And the apartheid years in South Africa and Northern Ireland’s 30 years of Troubles.
The Portadown Times story this week of devoted pen pals of 52 years, Sylvia Gilpin (Portadown) and Phyllis Baxen (South Africa), shows how people from such different background can show a shining example of friendship. It has had moments of laughter. When Phyllis arrived at Dublin airport to visit her friend in 1977 (with apartheid and the Troubles in full flow), she found it strange that white people were so helpful as she sought the bus – especially when a man gave up his seat!
Then in Portadown, she didn’t think she was allowed into the High Street shops – she waited outside and Phyllis had to call her in. Portadown, meanwhile, had more than its share of bombings, murder and mayhem, with rife sectarianism – it was of a religious-political nature, but the end result on all sides was death and deep mourning, the after-shocks of which are still felt profoundly today. That feeling pertains in South Africa and in Northern Ireland.
Theirs is colour, ours is long-standing distrust of ‘the other side’. Hopefully with apartheid ended and the Troubles, in the main, over, life can edge towards normality. Sadly racism is creeping into the Portadown psyche with the rising number of immigrants. Efforts must be made all round – at Stormont and at local level – to get the aftermath of the Troubles settled and the integration of immigrants developed.
Prejudices just don’t happen, as the song-writers suggested. They are engrained throughout the generations, and each new generation is “carefully taught”. The chain will have to be broken sooner or later.