URBAN PERSPECTIVE-Let’s get one thing out of the way. When I ask Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos: Why Amazon is still listing on its site for sale Agatha Christie’s classic crime who-done-it, with its original racially offensive name, Ten Little Niggers, it’s not yet another PC screech for censorship of a beloved crime classic. In fact, I resolutely opposed the demand a few years back to get rid of Mark Twain’s timeless classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, because it uses the word nigger countless times and one of its principal characters is “Nigger Jim.”
I said then that it was much ado about nothing because Twain was not a racist. The goal in the book was to show the ugliness and evilness of slavery and to do that he had to use the rawest racist language of his day. Huck Finn reflected not only the times but was a beautiful poetic, literary gem that readers young and old could learn from and admire for its historic and artistic content and quality. And, in any case, to pull it from libraries and curriculum was censorship in its rawest and ugliest form.
Christie’s Ten Little Niggers and Amazon’s sale of it, though, is a horse of a totally different color. The “n word” is not buried in the novel for added literary effect. It’s the cover title in bold letters. In some editions, in case the intent is missed, there’s a picture of an upper crust white couple with a look of fear and revulsion staring at a semi-naked black boy on a pedestal. In others there’s a circle of Sambo-caricatured blacks dancing around in a circle. Christie based the title on a racist poem with this ditty:
“Ten little nigger boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were Nine…
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.”
The title was clearly meant to shock and pander to the prevailing racist sentiment of the day. It had absolutely no relation to the story line of the novel.
Christie’s unabashed racist views read like a “what’s what” of racial stereotypes, vilification, and condescension in her mystery novels when there’s even the faintest mention of blacks and other non-white characters. She seemed to have a special fascination with their hair, eyes, or other physical characteristics that she found odd, different and always disgusting.
Now there’s Amazon. Amazon clearly states that it takes a close look at the appropriateness of items sold on its site that may “offend cultural differences and sensitivities.” It has pulled, or flagged, several items from its site -- from racially offensive DVDs to the Confederate Flag. To call for Amazon to pull Ten Little Niggers then is hardly a case of censorship, but purely a call for the world’s largest online buying and selling commercial product site to cease profiting off the sale of a horrid racially demeaning title.
It’s also a case of a company doing what legions of other companies have done that have had to come square with the fact they were selling and thereby profiting off of a racially, sexually or environmentally degrading product -- and that’s to pull it. In doing that, they have simply done more than pay lip service to their oft-time stated pledge to be a good corporate citizen. The removal of Ten Little Niggers from Amazon would in no way prevent buyers and collectors of the work with this offensive title from buying it. There’s a plethora of online book sellers and sites that sell the book, and they’re readily accessible to one and all.
Twain could not have conveyed the sentiment of the evil of slavery and racial bigotry that’s a part of America’s shameful racial legacy by sugar coating the language or guarding his vocabulary against racial epithets. Huck Finn, with all of its racial crudities, provided then and now an insight into a time and place in America that should not be forgotten. Nothing of the sort can be said of Christie’s Ten Little Niggers. There’s no redeeming literary value in the title -- a title that has nothing to do with the book and everything to do with pandering to crude and vicious racial stereotypes. By continuing to sell the book, Amazon is doing the same as Christie did, for profit and nothing more.
(Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Let’s Stop Denying Made in America Terrorism, (Amazon Kindle) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.