Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Agatha Christie, Racist? You Gotta Be Kidding Me!

That was my first thought when I read that officials in Lakota, Ohio had cancelled a high-school production of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" (also known as "And Then There Were None") because its original name turned out to be "Ten Little Niggers" and its original setting "Nigger Island". In fact I suspected some kind of PC hoax, but no, when you do a quick wiki search, you find that indeed the novel on which the play was based was:

...first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in November 1939 under the title of Ten Little Niggers [1] and in US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1940 under the title of And Then There Were None.

Not only that:

As the years passed by and gradually went out of style, many of the earlier remarks were edited from [Agatha Christie's] mysteries and more acceptable passages used to replace them.

I should say that Christie wrote more than 80 detective novels in her long career, and I must have read about 50 of them from between the time I was 15 to the time I moved out of the house (mom and I used to buy them at the local book exchange and swap them back and forth). I don't remember anything at all racist in them, but perhaps I was getting the later, cleaned-up editions. Interestingly enough (maybe), the same process of retroactive censorship was applied to The Hardy Boys series. The first books (about pre 1960, lets say) contained language similar to Christie's, which got expunged from succeeding editions. I also remember that in one of them a dog belonging to the villain is shot. Happily, in later versions, the dog is allowed to run free.

Looking back on some of the other material that I encountered as a child, I kind of sensed that the underlying Colonial politics of Babar were pretty doubtful, and my first encounter of the Tin Tin stories were in their serialized forms in kids magazines, so I don't know if these were the more or less prettied up versions that followed. I do remember reading "Tin Tin in the Congo", though, which was one of the books in that series that got creator Georges Prosper Remi (Hergé) in a certain amount of trouble recently. I don't remember thinking twice about it at all.

And, as for the Lakota Board's decision, well I suppose its up to them. But I'm not sure how the material can still be offensive if performed under one of the newer titles. And while Christie's novels are not high literature, they are hardly disposable public art, either. For example, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" is structurally innovative and heavily influenced the mystery genre, although when originally published many people felt the twist ending was a cheat. If the Jewish community has historically been able to get their heads around Antonio in The Merchant of Venice or Barabas in The Jew Of Malta, then you would think the folks at Lakota would be able to handle a bowdlerized version of Agatha Christie.


Anonymous said...

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is my fav Agatha Christie book, hands down

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing on this! I hadn't gone to wikipedia yesterday as I was traveling when I heard about this. But it was in the back of my mind all day, having grown up reading lots of Agatha Christie. I still like "Three Blind Mice" though now I'm afraid what lurking pre-story preceded it . . . what could a series of murders in a snow-bound country home really be about? The mind just boggles.

Of course, I might want to re-read some of them now so I can imagine a whole dirty subtext to each tale . . . mysteries within mysteries indeed!

Wow! Thank goodness we're being protected from the vulgarity of the human mind ; ).

Of course, my other thought was every single student at the school now knows the pre-story better than the innocent tale they were about to see. You know they all flocked to google and wiki en masse yesterday to read all the dirt. Unintended consequences indeed.

Anonymous said...

This is not news.

In the novel, there remains a few racial slurs. In particular in the first few chapters, they wrote "there is a n****r in the woodpile".

Furthermore, A.Christie was part of a fachist elite group that operated in the UK, which advocated for racial segregation and white superiority.

Again, this is not a hoax, its a fact.

Erik Buchanan said...

I've done "Ten Little Indians" on stage. It is still a racist piece, and it's hard to edit out since the one pegged as the romantic lead talks about "his natives."

On a whole other note, I know nothing about the novel, but the play is pretty crappy.

Fortunately, I died in the first 10 minutes. Drank poison and did a spectacular fall over a couch. Loads of fun.

Anonymous said...

Good thing she didn't write a book called Ten Little Muslims, or she'd have been murdered.

Anonymous said...

As an educator I am appalled at the decision to proceed with the play under any name. The title, the previous title, the new title, and the lyrics to the song or 'nursery rhyme' from which they were derived are racist, and it is very clear that faculty, administrators, parents and students at Lakota East are aware of that. Continuing in arrogance despite the pleas of aggrieved groups is reprehensible. Supporters of the play may think that now 'there are none' to stand up and respond, but this too is a sign of deep and abiding ignorance- the same ignorance that allows them to unabashedly use the name 'Lakota' and stick 'tomahawks' in the helmets of their team. These symbols are not funny and they do no honor to Native Americans. They are offensive, and the continued use of those symbols dishonors the school district. Listen to the national outcry, and consider how respectable institutes of higher learning will respond to Lakota east graduates with this abominable behavior the symbol of their school. How can this play represent a 'teachable moment' when the entire school district consistently endorses racism? Who there is qualified to teach about 'diversity'? The play is the tip of the iceberg. The call to stop the play is NOT about censorship. It is about more free speech - it is about hearing at long last the voices of people Lakota East PRETENDS to emulate but continues to ignore. Shame on all of you who support the censorship of indigenous people!

Anonymous said...

forget all criticism against Agatha Christie keep your fate to her.

Maria[grey suit]