portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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What are examples of symbolism in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot?

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In the second chapter of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot describes life in the mid twentieth century. She gives a detailed account of the difference of working conditions in the Sparrows Point Steel Mill for black and white workers. The steel mill is symbolic for the larger, systemic problems of Jim Crow or the unwritten laws that enforced the “separate but equal” status of African Americans. Sparrows Point Steel Mill stands as a symbol that illustrates the injustice and inequality that penetrated American society on all levels, a point which Skloot will later expand to include the medical field and Johns Hopkins.

In the same chapter, Skloot describes Henrietta’s early life in Clover. Henrietta grew up in the “home-house,” which was once the slave quarters on the Lacks plantation. The term “home-house” symbolizes the historical distinction between a home that was once used to house slaves.

In chapter 7, Skloot describes Alexis Carrel’s immortal chicken heart. This symbol stands for the public fear of cell culture, which was fueled through the media propaganda of the time. (An interesting note: Bill Cosby has a “chicken heart” sketch in which he describes his own fear of this propaganda.)

Chapter 12 introduces the storm that accompanies Henrietta’s funeral. This storm is symbolic of Henrietta’s death, her pain and the coming complications associated with her cells. The Lacks family reads the storm as a bad omen.

In chapter 16, Skloot meets the white Lacks family, who claim no relation to the black Lacks families. The chapter is titled, “Spending Eternity in the Same Place.” This is a reference to the graveyard, where both white and black Lacks family members are buried. The grave yard is symbolic because the white Lacks family cannot escape the truth and will spend “eternity” in the proximity of their black family members.

The night doctors are introduced in chapter 21 and are symbolic of the mythology and superstition found throughout the novel. The night doctors illustrate that much of the superstition is grounded in actual, historical events.

In chapter 30, Zakkariya describes the doctors as having “raped” his mother’s cells. Zakkariya’s words are symbolic of the lack of consent given to Henrietta or to her family.

Finally, the section “Deborah’s Voice,” which opens the book, also comes around full circle in the end; the final lines are spoken in Deborah’s voice. Her voice is particularly symbolic as she is the present embodiment of Henrietta and her journey illustrates the pain and suffering of black women that continues into the 21st century.

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