I’ve always had a bit of fascination with teeth. I don’t know where it began exactly. It’s one of the first things I always notice about people, and I imagine that might be gendered. As for me, I always wanted to hide them, my no good, very bad, off-white, yellow teeth.
When I was in kindergarten at Jackson Avenue School in Hackensack, New Jersey, my parents got the wild and crazy idea to put me in a beauty pageant. It was held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and I think I was one of maybe two girls of color there. I know because I made friends with the only other one—an olive-skinned Egyptian girl named Desiree. I came in 49th out of 50th place. My dad had to awkwardly rush me out of the pageant hall, as I sobbed aloud in my perfect white dress, when I found out how miserably I had done. Anyway, one of the things my mother did to prepare me for the pageant was by ‘teaching’ me how to ‘smile well.’ “Cuidado con la encía,” she told me, “Watch out for your gums.” It was important to smile, but not too widely so that the gums would protrude out and overwhelm the viewer, advice she still gives to my youngest sister. I can’t get too angry with her, I guess, she was giving me advice on how to best maneuver this awful, racist, sexist, classist world that she somehow was managing to negotiate in her own life. I think my teeth, back then, were whiter. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
Then, sometime in first or second grade, it all changed. My dad did some not so very nice things to my mother, he was away every now and then, my mother fell into her own deep hole of a depression. When I was younger, my mother would often paint and re-paint our one-floor apartment whenever she was down and pissed at my father (cue Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”). So, needless to say, we had a pretty clean apartment! But, anyway, I think that’s when my teeth started to get yellow, or at least that’s the mythology I’ve created in my head. A lot of over-fried chicken nuggets, arroz con huevo, fried cheese, soda, etc., etc., things my 12-13 year old older sister could cook on her own since my mother was working late and well, my dad, who knows where he was. “I’ll be right back.” I started to go to sleep without brushing my teeth.
So, is that who I should blame, them, my mother and father, for fucking up, for not making sure I went to bed without brushing my teeth at night? I surely can’t blame my mother, and I’m tired of laying the culpa on my father because, well, I’m not sure if I’m physically capable of being any more angry at him (ha), especially now that he’s so sick to even be able to take care of himself after the stroke a few years ago.
Of course, I’ve toyed with the idea of bleaching them. Seriously? Yeah, seriously. Somehow it might give me an ‘edge’ at a job interview, like my mom’s advice for that perfect beauty pageant smile. “Watch out for the gums.” (But have I forgotten that I am in the business of academia, folks notorious for bad teeth!?) I haven’t looked into it, of course, I imagine it’s expensive. Bleaching too has a weird, fucked up history, with skin, hair, vaginas, assholes, and enough people have written about it. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna do it.
Teeth, too, has it’s own fucked, horrendous history. African slaves were often ‘checked’ by potential buyers in the slave market by the ‘soundness’ and whiteness of their teeth. Sometime in the 1850s, a slave-trader A.J. Hydrick put a call in a local Virginia newspaper: “NEGROES WANTED. I am paying the highest cash prices for young and likely NEGROES, those having good front teeth and being otherwise sound.” (See Michael Tadman, “Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South,” 187-188). Franz Blaha, a Holocaust survivor who testified at Nuremberg, recounted the nightmare medical experiments at Dachau Concentration Camp in 1941. “When we got an order for skulls from Oranienburg, the SS men would say, ‘We will try to get you some with good teeth.’ So it was dangerous to have good skin or good teeth.” (from “Voices of the Holocaust,” edited by Jon E. Lewis). The horror.
According to Web MD, among the various causes of “Yellow Teeth and Other Discoloration” is Trauma, “For Example, damage from a fall can disturb enamel formation in young children whose teeth are still developing. Trauma can also cause discoloration to adult teeth.” I wonder, though, if the doctors of Web MD should include a deeper kind of trauma to explain the yellow teeth mystery—the trauma of violence, of poverty, of capitalism. “How Can I Prevent Teeth Discoloration?” Destroy capitalism?
For now, though, I’ll hold onto my no good, very bad, off-white, yellow teeth, as a testament to getting through those rough years, like a scar in my mouth.