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Lessons from Literature and the Stage

When James Michener wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning book Tales of the South Pacific in 1946, his intent was to share anecdotes and observations about his Navy service during World War II’s Pacific campaign. In 1949, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted it for the Broadway stage for a different reason: they wanted to make a progressive statement against racism.

Two of Michener’s stories had race relations themes: in one, an American soldier falls in love with an Asian woman, and in the other, an American nurse is conflicted in her feelings for a French man who fathered children with a Pacific Island woman. By 1949 standards, this was significant. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japanese forces  that pulled the US into World War II. Thousands of people of Japanese descent were held in camps throughout California. World War II propaganda used words like “murdering Japs” among others. US bombs were dropped over Japan. And then the war ended.

Broadway musicals were clearly viewed as entertainment, not object lessons in social justice. Rodgers and Hammerstein had solid storytelling, a memorable score, and plenty of star power behind the show. No surprise that it was a hit.

There was one song, however, that resonated with critics as perhaps being too controversial. “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” has powerful lyrics that speak of hate and intolerance as calculated and learned behaviors.

When the show went on the road, lawmakers in some states thought the song had an “underlying Communist agenda” with “philosophy inspired by Moscow.”  One lawmaker thought the storyline justified interracial marriage was a “threat to the American way of life.” Rodgers and Hammerstein defended their work, with Michener’s support, stated that this song in particular “represented why they wanted to do this play.”

Leap- frog over the Korean Conflict and the war in VietNam to now: fear, hate, and intolerance linger and pervade our society.

Spectrum Health stands to keep teaching and modeling diversity and inclusion for all. #StopAsianHate

Cherie Messore

Sr. Manager of Public Relations

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