Wisdom From Kammbia Story Review 17: The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P. Djeli Clark

by | Jan 22, 2023 | Marion's Favorites, Marion's Reading Life Blog, Short Story Review, Wisdom From Kammbia Column, Wisdom of Kammbia Story Review | 0 comments

“For the blacksmith understood what masters had chosen to forget: when you make a man or woman a slave, you enslave yourself in turn. And the souls of those who made thralls of others would never know rest—-in this life or the next.”

This quote is prophetic in its wisdom about the connection between a slave and its master.  P. Djeli Clark’s award-winning story, The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, drives home that wisdom quite clear.

Clark’s story chronicled a fictional account of the first American president purchase of nine teeth from slaves at that time.  The each tooth purchased gives an account of that person’s history and how it came into possession for George Washington.  All the stories of those nine slaves were sad, heartbreaking, and showed the inhumanity during the height of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

The story reads more like an obituary listing in a newspaper than a full-blown story with characters, plot, and a narrative that brings it to a conclusion.  However, this apparent lack of a story structure on the surface does not negate the story’s reading experience at all. Clark lays out the effects of the slave master purchasing these teeth and how it creates a soul tie that he could have never expected. Human connection runs deep and just because you are in a privileged position that doesn’t remove from the circumstances of owning another human being whether society accepts or not.

After reading the story, I could see why it won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story of 2018 and the Locus Award for Best Short Story in 2019. Clark approaches the legacy of American slavery in a way that is digestible and a matter-of-fact that could be easily glossed over upon a first reading.  However, there is a depth in this story that demands those who have lost their teeth be considered as fully human and sympathetic to the slave owner’s (who happens to be the 1st American president) plight in receiving the teeth at the same time.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington first appeared in Fireside Fiction Magazine in 2018 and included in The 2019 Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy Anthology edited by Carmen Maria Machado. P. Djeli Clark is an author that I have kept my eye on.  I have read his novellas, Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Both novellas were solid and I’m looking forward to reading his first novel, A Master of Djinn.  Also, I have read his essay, Fantasy’s Othering Fetish, where he looked at the lack of diversity in the fantasy genre.  He has my attention and I have appreciated his works pushing the genre I love the most forward.


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Marion Hill