Learning and Unlearning Racism

by | Jun 23, 2020 | Features, Politics | 2 comments

“South Pacific” opened in 1949 and became one of Broadway’s longest running hits. It features Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse from rural Arkansas stationed on a South Pacific island who falls in love with a sophisticated French planter, Emile De Becque. She rejects his proposal of marriage, however, when she discovers he has two children of color. Her response to his proposal forces her to confront the sources of her bigotry in song: “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”

 The song was radical for its time and was even denounced by some Southern lawmakers who believed it espoused a Communist agenda (“straight from Moscow”) and that its treatment of inter-racial marriage “threatened our American way of life.” Here is an excerpt: 

“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!”

I am not from the South, but I was certainly taught to be a racist. My father was born in Harlem in 1913, just as the area began to be populated by Blacks migrating from the South. His family moved to Brooklyn in an early version of white flight. His posting as a NYC firefighter, however, landed him in Bedford Stuyvesant in the 1940’s, which only deepened his animus towards Blacks. As a 1940’s child, I never heard him use the acceptable “colored“or “negro”. He always referred to Blacks from his lengthy inventory of slurs, slurs buttressed with a catalogue of demeaning jokes. This was the culture of my home and my neighborhood, and it had its impact on me. I was “carefully taught hate before I was six or seven or eight.”

But things were happening in my Brooklyn world that did not jibe with my father’s prejudice. I was five years old when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, soon followed by Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, and Junior Gilliam. The Dodgers were my team and these men, with Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider, were my childhood heroes. I listened to or watched almost every game. I felt like I KNEW these men. I even had signed baseball cards by all of them (which my father discarded when I went off to college).

In addition to the Dodgers, disc jockey Alan Freed brought his Rock N’ Roll shows to the Brooklyn Paramount several times a year. This was a jail break for kids like me who were bored by Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo, the Ames Brothers, the Andrew Sisters, and the like. Long lines snaked through the streets of Brooklyn, and thousands of anxious teenagers – black and white – swarmed into the theater and danced in the aisles to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Platters, Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, The Cleftones, The Drifters. Even Pat Boone. It was heaven. I even forgot my bad skin for a couple of hours. 

In addition to the Dodgers and Rock n’ Roll, I had track and field. I was a competitive quarter- and half-miler in high school and later had a track scholarship to Boston College. Many of my teammates and competitors were young Black men racing in places like Madison Square Garden, the Penn Relays, and the 103rd Engineers Armory in Harlem. Some were my friends — smart, funny, gifted, and fierce. They were not the stereotypes I had been taught to expect.

There was a disjuncture between my father’s experience and mine. Not surprisingly, my father and I parted ways on racial issues. When I was as a man in my mid twenties, he objected to my support of the civil rights movement, and when I objected to his demeaning remarks about Martin Luther King after his assassination, we almost came to blows. He was a tough customer, and he did not like my standing up to him. But we never had another argument about race, and he never again used racist language in my company. 

I learned hate in my house when I “was six, or seven, or eight.” But I unlearned it. And I learned not to drum hate into the ears of my children. And they have not drummed it into the ears of theirs. But it is a lesson that needs to be repeated, from family to family, from generation to generation.

 “South Pacific” was written seventy-one years ago.

Note: This article was originally published The Pilot of Southern Pines, NC.


  1. stfree

    It appears that Mr. Shaw and I had the same father, although distant in years and place. I am a native North Carolinian whose family counts a Confederate as a fore barer. My father and I also had serious differences over racial prejudices. He learned that I was not as tolerant as he had surmised when it came to injustice and we made peace eventually. He’s gone to his reward some years past, so it falls to me to do the teaching, carefully, with malice toward none and justice for all.

  2. Beverly Falls

    Glad you brought the lyrics of South Pacific back into today’s discourse. It is past time to teach a more complete history of the United States, so that we can deal with long-held underlying issues and bring about a reconciliation.

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