Reading the Hugos (2019) The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

Commenting on my last post, where I gave a harsh beating to the previous Hugo short story finalist, Alexandru Constantin mentioned that he “can’t get past the stupid titles.” Yes, I have thought about that too, and it’s a common issue with these award-worthy stories or those that give off some kind of literary aspiration: they usually have humongous titles. It’s like they are trying to compensate for something, or perhaps it’s a way to mark the story as one of their own. It reminds me of that amusing observation about the length of a country’s official names correlating with how undemocratic it is (e.g., People’s Democratic Republic of Something or Other.)

I’m pleased to announce that that does not apply to today’s story, and even if the title is ridiculously long and descriptive, in this case, it seems more a matter of extreme literalism and lack of imagination to come up with titles than anything else.

This one is good.

No, I’m not being sarcastic or anything. I mean it.  It’s an all right story. Although, it should be said, by itself the story may be a bit weak and readers who don’t know the work behind it may scratch their heads more than once as they read it. The author, Phenderson Djèlí Clark, seems to be a historian, and on his blog, he explains the creative process and sources he used to write the tale. I highly recommend you to read that post before, after, or as you read the short story. In fact, even if you don’t read the piece of fiction at all, the post is worth it, and I believe I actually enjoyed it more than the story itself.

Now, the story is built on a plausible historical hypothesis: that the dentures George Washington had used were from black slaves. It’s not impossible and less controversial than it may seem at first sight. Using other people’s teeth for your own dentures was quite common back then, for example, I’m aware that the teeth of fallen soldiers were used for that. It’s gristly, and you won’t find those things in school history books, but it happened, so it’s not outrageous to think George Washington could have used teeth like those, or that they came from slaves.

From that real-world hypothesis, the author adds fantastic elements and explains the lives of the titular nine negros and the effects their teeth had on George Washington when he used them since they are, basically, magic teeth, now imbued with some part of their owner’s essence. Depending on the reader, that layer of magic may improve the story or undermine it. I’m on the fence about that, but I believe I’m leaning toward the latter because I enjoyed more the reality-based explanation on the author’s blog than the fantasy-based narration, which sometimes may be a bit too excessive or dense, as if the author feared he had to include a lot of fantastic elements since this was, after all, a story submitted as fantasy. Still, it’s not a big issue, and not all of the nine flash stories are magical (the most important one, the last one, isn’t.)

So, I like this one. It’s not a proper short story, as it doesn’t have a clear plot or central character, and the writing is a bit sparse (conversely, it’s easy to read and unpretentious,) but I like it. And since its subject is currently, to say the least, contentious, I was surprised at not finding “current themes” or modern language/talking points or anything along those lines. I’m no expert, but as far as I could see, it seemed historically grounded and didn’t deviate (except for the magic) from that or indulged in cheap political punches or crude soapboxing. With these stories, I can immediately see that it was written in the year 201x, but here, I really can’t—and that’s good.

You can read it here and remember to read the author’s post.


One thought on “Reading the Hugos (2019) The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

  1. Pingback: The Second Sweep: Hard Theology, Shonen Manga, and Superscience –

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