What’s wrong with her?

Prefer to listen to a self-narrated version of this post? Simply use the player above

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. From South Pacific by Oscar Hammerstein II, sung by a young American lieutenant who falls in love with an island girl during World War II and initially can’t overcome his ingrained prejudice.

South Pacific promotional poster from 1958 via originalposter.co.uk

I’ll never forget that song because my father taught me the lyrics when I was six or seven or eight. All part of my upbringing and inculcation into what I would face as a black person in the United States of America, and a lesson on the stem of racism and stereotypical thinking. “No one’s born prejudiced,” he’d say. “Someone has to teach it.”

I’ve seen the South Pacific movie many times, most recently a few years ago in Rome where I live with my Italian husband. I started crying almost from the opening credits because I knew that all the dreaminess and romanticism of the film, albeit wrapped in blazing Technicolor, would not outweigh or shroud the embedded unfairness and tragedy. The young lieutenant (pictured below in a still from the movie) decides to abandon his life back home and marry his love, but is killed in action before he can. The main characters, however, will end up together but not after racial strife.

20th Century Fox/Getty Images

Barely able to speak, I called my husband at his office. “Gaetano, please come home as soon as you can?” I croaked out.

He did and we watched the film together; I wanted him to understand a little more about American prejudice and how national boundaries can’t contain it. He watched in silence, not knowing exactly what I was talking about until the female lead, Nellie Forbush, a Southern belle, runs from her French suitor, a wealthy plantation owner, after he introduces two local young children. Initially, she swoons over them (Aren’t they adorable? Those big black eyes staring at you out of those sweet, little faces) and then asks, “Are they Henry’s? (the butler)”

“They’re mine,” he responds. A widower, he’d fathered them with his wife, a local woman. Nellie is appalled and flees, with her silk organza dress flowing behind her.

I looked at my husband and said, “See! That’s how it is.”

“But what’s wrong with her?” he replied. “He’s got two pretty little kids and he’s rich.”

I had to explain. Since he dipped in the well of a woman of color, she certainly wasn’t going to let him dip in her well. My husband was still perplexed.

“She’d never have children as good-looking as those! She’s not all that.”

So, here’s an Italian man dismissing the looks of what would be considered the most desirable ‘type’ of woman in the States, appreciating the nut-brown offspring of a Frenchman and a Melanesian woman, and puzzled by all the fuss. For him, the optics played a greater role than anything else.

Gaetano, thoroughly perplexed

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