Christie’s story, also known as And Then There Were None, is about ten strangers, who were invited to an island where they mysteriously died one after the other.
In the original story, Christie uses the reference, nigger, in three different ways. The story is set on an island off the coast of Devon, England, called Nigger Island –‘It got its name from its resemblance to a man’s head — the profile of a negro’.
The second reference is the poem, Ten Little Niggers, a framed copy of which hung in each of the guest rooms. The poem, adapted in 1869 by Frank J. Green from the original, Ten Little Injuns (Septimus Winner, 1868), was already a minstrel show favorite before Christie further popularized it, using its contents to provide the overall framework of her story.
The third reference to niggers in Christie’s story is to ten small porcelain black statues in the middle of the dinner table, which mysteriously disappear one-by-one in parallel with the deaths of the ten island guests.
Recognizing the offensive nature of the term, the editor of the first U.S. edition (1940) removed the term, choosing to recast black as red – the book, Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None), was now set on Indian Island, a poem about Indians hung in the room of each guest, and upon each of their deaths, one of the porcelain Indians in the middle of the dinner table mysteriously disappeared.
It is rather unlikely that the New York editor’s decision was a nostalgic nod to Winner’s original nursery rhyme immortalizing the Vanishing Indian. Rather, he was merely following dominant culture logic that an offensive racial epithet can be removed by simply substituting it for an entirely different racial minority with a less (arguably) offensive name.
This editorial decision (1940) took place well before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball (1947), Brown vs. the Board of Education overturned school segregation (1954) and Martin Luther King, Jr. shared a dream in Washington, DC (1963).
It was, no doubt, a wise decision not to publish Christie’s original title in the United States and, yet, dominant culture still struggles recognizing the invidious nature of paternalistic racism – rampant in the very phrase, Ten Little Indians.
As for rest of the world, as late as 1977, London was still publishing the work under the title, Ten Little Niggers, which remains the work’s popular international title.
Except in Italy . . .
. . . where last autumn, I purchased a number of Agatha Christie books to help improve my Italian. Among the titles was Dieci piccolo indiani (Ten Little Indians), which most strangely contains not a single mention of Indians but rather retains every single reference in Christie’s dark original!
What’s red on the outside and black on the inside?
The Italian edition of Agatha Christie’s 1939 best seller.
Clearly a cultural quark.
Che cosa ne dite? So, what do you think?
Ten little n····r boys going out to dine;
One choked his little self, and then there were nine.
Nine little n····r boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself, and then there were eight.
Eight little n····r boys going down to Devon;
One got left behind, and then there were seven.
Seven little n····r boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in half, and then there were six.
Six little n····r boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one, and then there were five.
Five little n····r boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery, and then there were four.
Four little n····r boys sailing out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one, and then there were three.
Three little n····r boys going to the zoo;
A big bear hugged one, and then there were two.
Two little n····r boys playing in the sun;
One got all frizzled up, and then there was one.
One little n····r boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself, and then there were none.