You Have To Be Taught

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!

Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a heart-wrenching song for their musical South Pacific in 1949.

My mom loved South Pacific.  She was born in a harbour of a bay of the North Atlantic.

©2006 Marion Pennell

©2006 Marion Pennell

My mom was the least racist or prejudiced person I have ever known.  Her father was a bigot, in the typical way of his generation (he was born in the tail end of the 19th century).  In the 1970s, in the hospital, dying, she told me he didn’t want any black nurses to attend to him.  I thought, lucky for the black nurses that they didn’t have to attend to such a grumpy verbally-abusive patient.

Mom taught me about Jesse Owens.  She loved the underdog.  Okay, maybe (well definitely) she hated Hitler, I’ll give her that, but I am hard-pressed to remember any other person she hated, and yeah let’s agree to hate Hitler, that’s a no-brainer, he was the ultimate bigot and hater anyway.  And a black man besting Hitler’s best in Germany no less, she thought that was cool.  (Okay she didn’t say “cool”, but that’s how I heard it.)  But she didn’t hate the German people, the regular people, she figured they were conned, and fooled, and were in a bad place at a bad time, with a horrible horrible leader.

When we watched the Miss Universe pageant, she always thought the women from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and those geographical areas, were simply beautiful.  On her favourite soap opera in its last decades (Guiding Light, which she originally listened to in its 15 minute format on radio) was an actress named Melina Kanakeredes (Mom always knew the actors’ names) who she thought resembled a Greek statue.  She saw beauty for beauty.  She didn’t need peaches-and-cream-complexion blue-eyed beauty queens, although she had all those physical qualities herself.  She didn’t need to validate herself by elevating some mirror-image version of her own biology.

Mom taught me bigotry is not logical, it’s not practical, it serves no greater purpose.  She knew it was the province of small minded people.  People who need to elevate themselves by putting others down. She knew very well that each person is accountable for their own actions and morals and ethics, and it was illogical to hide behind a group of religious or racial or some-such affiliation.  Later, when she met my gay friends, she “got it” right away.  “They’re just people.”  Of course, and not only that, but these are good people, and that is why they are my friends.

On mom’s side, the family had migrated to a burgeoning interior mining town on The Rock, and that grumpy grandfather rose to a high level of responsibility and respect.  Mom’s home town had a very good school, and my grandmother was conscious of Newfoundland English being a dialect, and asked my mom (who was receiving a very good education for the time) to correct her pronunciation when she could.  (A good example is the pirate-ish  “arrrrr” sound – mom taught her mother to pronounce the word “war” to rhyme with “oar” and not “are”.)  Mom, the eldest girl, skipped grade five and the schoolboard had to get written permission from the provincial authorities for her to write her graduating exams because she was only 15 at the time. She entered grade 11 in 1939 in September. War broke out on, I think, the third day of school.  In her later years, she realized the stress of keeping that job and supporting that family may have made him grumpier than necessary, and he did soften as a grandfather, especially to his youngest daughter’s children.  But the attitudes and belief systems were as fixed as the colour of his eyes.

©2013 Marion Pennell

©2013 Marion Pennell

My dad on the other hand, was from “down around the bay”, and went to a one room schoolhouse, where a local girl graduating grade 11 in the spring could be teaching everybody in the fall.  When my own father was sputtering some nonsense about some group (Jews, I think was the example), she said to him “Do you know why you are not Jewish?”  That was a weird question for my father.  The answer is “Because your parents weren’t.”  Accident of birth?  Gift of birth?  You do not choose what family you are born into, you are what you are because someone gave birth to you.  How simple is that?

Actually, dad actually didn’t go on much about the Jews, or the Negroes (as they were called in my youth).  He saved his vitriol for Catholics and French people (really, saved over from his generation’s upbringing).  Good plan, dad, moving to Québec!!!  Mom chided him when he made fun of a French person’s pronunciation of English on television – Dad never spoke any French, and he retained some of the “poor” English pronunciation from the outports of Newfoundland. (Dad couldn’t pronounce “th” properly – which led some of my friends to think he was of French origin.)

Newfoundland was basically white European (well after they killed all the Beothuks).  The three groups (who loved their codfish) were the English, the French, and the Portuguese.  Although the Portuguese presence remains mainly in some place names, and the complexion of men like my father, the language that survived was the very specific Newfoundland-English dialect, and the province retained the Old Country’s rivalry/hatred/enemy status between Catholics and Protestants.

©2002 Marion Pennell

©2002 Marion Pennell

Mom’s dad was raised Salvation Army – though not as quaint as in the movies or the Christmas bell-ringers we see today – from some scuttlebutt it seems my great grandmother was akin to the evangelicals we see in the news today.  The town had four churches – Catholic, Anglican, United, and Salvation Army.  Mom had to go to church of course, and she liked the band at the Salvation Army, but thought the minister was scary with all his talk of hellfire.  But she was allowed to accompany her friends to either Anglican or United Church, as long as she went to church each Sunday.  The Catholic church was only for Catholics, that was drummed into both groups.

Growing up, although she loved her mother dearly, mom was not very impressed with her mother’s continuous production of siblings and certainly did not want to emulate her in that fashion. So, I asked her if there was a woman in town that she admired. And it was Mrs. Delaney, originally from Boston, I think, (her husband must have been an engineer brought in for the mine) who was college educated herself, and was known for standing up to the authority of the Catholic Church, an exceptionally brave thing for anyone in Newfoundland at the time, especially a woman. The public school was subsidized by the mining company and was very advanced for the time: library, science labs.  The principal had a Bachelor’s degree, and each teacher had at least one year of college.  Mrs. Delaney, a devout practicing Catholic, petitioned her church to the highest level in St. John’s and did receive dispensation to send her kids to the public school rather than the makeshift Catholic school (void of the above academic accoutrements).

But when I pressed my mom more about Mrs. Delaney, beyond this act of brave defiance, my mom explained that when you went to Mrs. Delaney’s house – well, it wasn’t dirty, but it was messy, and there could be dishes in the sink, but Mrs. Delaney DIDN’T CARE. She was sitting by the stove with her feet up, smoking a cigarette and reading a book. This amazed my mother. Mom later borrowed a typewriter from Mrs. Delaney and learned how to type so she could work for Uncle Jack in the office at the mine.

For all his proclamations, my grandfather didn’t always go to church, but his wife converted from Anglican to her husband’s religion (as wives did), although late in her widowhood she worried about her grown children not being baptized, and was glad for those that eventually did.  My mom married into the United Church of Canada (which she loved for its calmness, and liberal attitude) and was baptized (sprinkled, not dunked) as a young married adult.  Still Protestant, so still okay.

But her sister fell in love with horrors!, a Catholic!!!  The rest is not my story to tell, but suffice it to say things were made more difficult than necessary. I was around ten when my mom had to confess the whole family story to me.  And she was embarrassed having to explain the type of thinking that was considered acceptable (by some) at the time.  At the same time, she was always asserting that such “reasoning” was absolutely wrong, the people just didn’t know any better. I asked questions that had no satisfying answers.  I used to tell people, oh yeah, Newfoundland – the Catholic/Protestant thing – it’s like Ireland without the violence.  That’s how I processed it.

We all watched “All In The Family”.  I disliked the Edith Bunker subservience that I saw also in my mother.  I recognized the king of the castle attitude of Archie/my dad.  But the show usually celebrated Archie’s comeuppance. Mom’s favourite episode, boy did she love it, was the one with Sammy Davis Jr. (as himself), and the comic set-up where he kissed Archie on the cheek just as the neighbours were taking the photo of the celebrity in their midst.

Mom NEVER automatically hated.  Never.  She knew there was bad and good in all groups.  She also told me that every single person had something they could teach me, and she definitely included the mentally ill/intellectually handicapped (ie. everybody) in that equation.  She told me no matter how great I thought I was, someone was greater, and no matter how pitiful I thought I was, someone was in worse shape.

Some people say their mother was a saint.  My mom loved the song quoted above, from a musical she loved.  She loved the song because it was so smart.

My mother wasn’t a saint, but she was a genius.

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