November 27, 2007

And Then There Were N-words

JohnnyB calls my attention to a particularly amusing bit of media self-censorship. The Philadelphia Inquirer Cincinnati Enquirer reports that an area high school canceled a performance of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians under pressure from an NAACP official who objected to the original title of the book it was based on. Or as the Inky put it:

Hines said the book's original title and cover illustration used for its initial publishing that year [1939] in England was a racial slur toward blacks and included a cover illustration of a black person and a hangman's noose.

"The original title was 'Ten Little (N - - - - - -),' and it is important to say that because that was the actual title," Hines said Monday.

Important for him to say it, maybe, but not for the newspaper which is merely charged, after all, with explaining the story to its readers. I particularly like how the newspaper's substitution of letters with dashes isn't quite enough to avoid giving offense, so they've cordoned off the former word with parantheses. Whew!

While we're at it, can I just say: What a d-----b--. He shuts down a high school play because it's based on a book whose title — used 70 years ago in another country and never in this one — was offensive? Who exactly was going to be offended if they didn't even know that? Sure, high school students should be taught the history of the book as a lesson in evolving racial attitudes, but they shouldn't be prohibited from performing the play, which in and of itself has zero racial content. (OK, Indians might not like the rhyme that drives the plot, though it's not really about Indians).

For the record, the novel is based on the 1860s funny death ditty Ten Little Indians, which the (racist!) Brits changed to Ten Little Niggers. Contrary to Hines and the Inky Enquirer, the original cover does not show a hangman's noose. He may be thinking of a 1960s British reprint. (Both seen here). In any event, it's not a "hangman's noose," but a suicide's, so any lynching overtones are a product of the reader's recontextualization. (Nor is it a "person" but a Golliwogg, not that that makes it better).

From the beginning American editions of the book were titled either And Then There Were None or Ten Little Indians. In recent editions, the rhyme has been changed from Indians to soldiers or sailors (because it's still OK to insult the troops). The stubborn (and racist!) Brits continued to use the original title through the 1980s.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Not related to this post but rather to the general discussion of being afraid to say what we mean, I was paging through a poetry anthology last night looking for a particular quote, and I found this biographical blurb about Oscar Wilde:

In 1895, by a grotesque tissue of ironies, Wilde was found guilty of having done something that had not been a crime ten years earlier and subjected to two years imprisonment of a kind (accompanied by genuine hard labor) that would be much softened by prison reforms just ten years later.

What's particularly confounding about all that obfuscating is that the crime Wilde was charged with, gross indecency, is certainly not unsuitable for a family poetry collection. Far worse phrases are printed a few hundred pages earlier in To His Coy Mistress. And the actual phrase gets the point across well enough for most readers without having to say explicitly, "He engaged in something short of anal sex with teen boys." It's almost as if the editor was so infuriated by the euphemism of "gross indecency" that he refused to say it and instead created this elaborate and confusing web of protest-speak against 19th century British law.

Picky point perhaps, but it was the Cincinnati Enquirer, rather than the Philadelphia Inquirer. Cincinnati, the home of Marge Schott who referred to some star players on her ballclub as "million dollar (n------)".

Just as silly as this lawsuit where an airline was sued because a stewardess said, "E----, m-----, m---, m--."

great post, Daniel...

Laugh all you want, but as a proud Italian I will continue my long-standing boycott of Burger King until they discontinue the menu called "The W------."

Kevin's example seems to me almost like it's not hypocritical (except that we know about Wilde). Someone reading that could really wonder if it didn't have something to do with drunk driving or mail fraud or killing a neighbor's dog. The presumed innocent reader really is protected, not only from sexiness with dudes but any indecency, gross or otherwise. That's pure, not the winking fig leaf of dashes and euphemisms.

The Enquirer followed up today:

In case you're wondering, the charge that the play is "about genocide" apparently stems from a maximalist interpretation of the alternate title, And Then There Were None. Really.

That's hilarious. But wait a minute: If I remember correctly, the killer had selected the victims as representatives of types of people who were a blight on society, so their deaths were reflective of a larger ideological extermination campaign. Not genocide, per se, but genocidesque...

Per Wikipedia: "When the guests gather in the parlor after dinner the first night, a gramophone recording bearing the label Swan Song informs them that all ten of them have been found guilty of murder, although in each case, the law was powerless to punish them"

So it's genocide against criminals. Also, the text has been updated to replace the gramophone with an iPod Touch.

But how does it play in ------apolis, ------a?

Ten Little Indians also the title of Sherman Alexie's 2003 story collection (about Native Americans), a national bestseller and finalist for LA Times book prize

Maybe I'm remembering wrong about the emphasis on "types of people." Maybe that was just an offhand comment of the grammophone's. Or maybe I was mixing up the serial killer's selection of them with Agatha Christie's.

The play is back on: "..the outpouring of criticism locally and nationally led Lakota officials to reconsider." Thanks, Dan Radosh.

Post a comment

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2