Review: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark


Release Date: February 2018, issue 52
Publisher: Fireside Magazine
Genre: Historical Fantasy

Welcome to Short Fiction Week, a biannual feature of five days of reviews of short stories and novelettes from across the science fiction and fantasy spectrum. All of the short fiction highlighted in this series is available free online, but please support the author and publications hosting this incredible work.


My Thoughts

SecretLivesNineNegroTeeth-coverDjèlí Clark is one of the best Black historical fantasy writers of our age. What he did with The Black God’s Drums – what I described as “a thrilling steampunk take on a world where the colonized rose up against their masters and shattered their chains” – was nothing short of magic. Lightning strikes twice with his short story The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington.

This story is what it says on the tin – a recounting of the Black men and women who contributed (willingly or otherwise) teeth for George Washington’s dentures. In real life, Washington really did purchase nine teeth pulled from enslaved African Americans by a French dentist, although we don’t know for sure if they were for his dentures or for someone else. Clark takes that historical tidbit and expands on it in ways both fantastical and truthful.

Most of the enslaved Africans the teeth came from use magic in some way or another. Some were enslaved because of their magic, others learned it from their ancestors or carried it deep within their souls. This Washington lives in a world where magic lives and breathes, a land of wizards and the fae, mermen and root doctors, shapeshifters and feromancers. Yet Clark’s world isn’t so different from ours. It’s also a world of racism and slavery, of social hierarchies and revolutions. There the enslaved still find small ways of pushing back against their masters and slaveholders post runaway notices offering money to capture and return their escaped slaves, where enslaved women bear the weight of raising a white man’s family at the expense of their own but still keep their love and light, where African Americans somehow manage to build communities out of the hell of enslavement. I know I’m rambling, but fuck, Clark is just so good with so few words.

Lissen, P. Djèlí Clark needs to be at the top of your To Read queue. And if you don’t believe me, I hopeThe Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington convinces you.

The Bonny man shared tales of his kingdom, of his wife and children and family, forever lost. The merman in turn told of his underwater home, of its queen and many curiosities. He also taught the Bonny man a song: a plea to old and terrible things that dwelled in the deep, dark, hidden parts of the sea–great beings with gaping mouths that opened up whirlpools or tentacles that could drag ships beneath the depths. They would one day rise to wreak vengeance, he promised, for all those who had been chained to suffer in these floating coffins. The Bonny man never saw the merman after they made land on the English isle of Barbados. But he carried the song with him, as far as the Colony of Virginia, and on the Mount Vernon plantation, he sang it as he looked across fields of wheat to an ocean he couldn’t see—and waited.

Read the full story online.

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