James Michener‘s short story collection, Tales of the South Pacific, a bestselling Pulitzer Prize winner in 1948, was eclipsed a year later by South Pacific, the blockbuster Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein musical that includes some of the most memorable songs written for the stage. One song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” includes this verse:
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
The converse is also true: you have to be carefully taught to be color-blind. Witness this exchange between one of my daughters and her almost-four-year-old son:
Mother: Do you remember when we were in the grocery store and you asked me why some people have darker skin than we do?
Child: Yes. And some people have lighter skin!
Mother: Yes! Do you remember that I told you that is because it is important to have variety…to have all sorts of different people, because if we were all the same life would be boring?
Child: Yes! And some people have red hair. Like Jonah at school.
Mother: Yes. Well, a long time ago—well, long ago in your life—there were people in the United States and around the world who didn’t like all that variety. They thought that people with different skin color shouldn’t be treated as nicely as they were.
Child: That’s terrible, Mommy.
Mother: Yes, it was terrible. But there were a lot of people who knew that variety was a very good thing. And there was a man named Martin Luther King, Jr., who talked to the people of the United States about how important it is to have variety and to share the United States with everyone, no matter how light or dark their skin is. He was a very good man.
Child: Where is the King man now?
Mother: Well, buddy, Martin Luther King is no longer alive.
Child: He’s DEAD? Oh nooooooo…
Mother: Yes he is, bud, but we have a holiday every year to celebrate his life and all the good things he did.
Child: That’s good. But I’m sad he’s dead, Mommy.
Mother: Me too, buddy.
Child: When will *I* be dead?
Mother: Not for a very very long time.
Child: That’s good!
Mother: Yes, yes it is! I like having you around.
It took more than two centuries, but at last we have variety in the White House.
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(Full disclosure: I sang the part of Luther Billis in South Pacific at Harvard in 1965. The Harvard Crimson panned the play, but I got a good notice. The review is online.)