Warning: Racial epithets are all over this article.
Maybe I’m the last dude on the block to know this. Maybe I did know this and forgot. Maybe I’m dreaming now and I’m going to wake up and feel like a bigger asshole than I really am. I didn’t know that And Then There Were None, the immortal and massively influential mystery story by Agatha Christie originally was released under the slightly less [or more, depending on your preference] catchy Ten Little Niggers. One of the cornerstone stories that has literally become synonymous with thrillers about groups of people in a closed environment systematically being picked off began its life as a book with a title that may sell well in certain areas of the South but is tough to dispute the lunkheadedness of. Though the dissection of the name and significance of this book has long been discussed over time [great insightful article here], it still made me take pause seeing the evolution of this excellent tale from where it was to where it is in the pantheon of the genre it helped define.
Without this book we’d have no Mindhunters.
Some folks may know it as Ten Little Indians, but I believe And Then There Were None is the most popular variation in modern culture. The title was changed because some people back in 1939 felt it was in bad taste. Even though the term was really somewhat new. And apparently not an insulting term back then. We’ve come a long way, though I think it probably was a little insulting even in those different and more leathery times. But, amid all that discourse, cooler heads prevailed and decided that maybe Ten Little Niggers wasn’t the way to go.
While I will accept that tolerance was a lot different back then, it does put things in perspective how far we’ve come. It’s not a totally fair allegory, but in the wake of Prop. 8 being overturned [for now] and seeing people on both sides of the issue state their cases we’ve come a long way and I think we’re still at a much more accelerated rate of growth as a species now even with all the trouble in the world. Even though much of our culture is at record levels of shittiness and even though people are always going to be unkind to each other, intolerant, hateful, homophobic, racist, sexist, and other ‘ist’ we’re still moving forward.
I think we’re just so used to things happening faster now. ‘Ten Little Niggers’ wasn’t Christie’s saying, it was a spin on a nursery rhyme that grew in popularity during the Civil War. Things don’t always happen so fast.
Check out this charmer:
One choked his little self and then there were Nine.
Nine little nigger boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were Eight.
Eight little nigger boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.
Seven little nigger boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.
Six little nigger boys playing with a hive;
A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five.
Five little nigger boys going in for law;
One got into Chancery and then there were Four.
Four little nigger boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.
Three little nigger boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.
Two little nigger boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was One.
One little nigger boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were None.
And in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. Sorta.
But it gives me pause about my own willingness to jump to conclusions about what’s offensive or what’s contributing to the detriment of the world. The fact that this book was originally called what it was speaks to me that we grow and learn and move forward. We keep the good and discard the bad and try not to repeat. It seems logical. It seems fine. It’s etched into memory and history but is it bad or is it an example of righting a wrong?
The word ‘nigger’ is the most weighted word in our language [though I think ‘love’ is more dangerous]. On its heels, though far behind, is ‘faggot’. Right now we’re in a weird place between the law, our rights, and the government’s role in our private lives. In the mid-80’s we had a massively successful song with the line ‘the little faggot with the earring and make-up…‘ and cooler heads wisely edited the song for the radio and in subsequent releases. Today it’d had never made it past the first edit by the sound engineer. We’re moving forward. Slowly but on a path towards a better reality.
‘Faggot’ can still be uttered in public without too much fanfare but it’s an epithet. Gay rights is in a place not too drastically unlike equal rights for all races was in the 60’s. People are still dying for no reason. People are still discriminated against, though there’s nowhere near the history of oppression [though the gay/straight line has caused issues since we discarded pelts and bones]. So, maybe it’s good that we have these little milestones in our pop culture to test us. To make us mad. To make us think.
When I was reading up on Agatha Christie and saw the image used in the top of this article my first reaction was shock. That’s me being trained by the modern world to react that way. I was aghast. Then I laughed, which is more true to my nature. I’m still rougher around the edges than I am conditioned but it was great to see the dotted lines between stereotypes, the taboo, and shit that is oftentimes blown way the fuck out of proportion.
Either way, it was an interesting learning experience. It’s amazing what time and distance can do to things.
The moral of the story: We’ll never fully get THERE, wherever THERE is in terms of a society that’s fair and positive yet still interesting but we’re pointed in the right direction and that’s kind of comforting to see things in perspective. A beloved writer wrote a beloved cornerstone book with the fucktest racistest title and life goes on.
Except for Agatha. She died before Star Wars.