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The entire concept of Rebecca Skloot's book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is based on the life of a black woman who was both a hero and a victim of racism, both on the grandest scale.
It is a true story, of course, and the basic scenario is that a young black woman was diagnosed with a kind of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University--because it was the closest hospital to her that would treat black people. Though she was treated for her condition to some degree, cells from her body were used without her complete knowledge or consent. These cells, known as HeLa cells (which comes from a pseudonym she was given, though it also comes from her actual name), have been used in some of the most astounding medical breakthroughs of the past sixty-plus years.
There are several points of outrage in this story. One is the use of Henrietta's cells without her knowledge (the ethics of medical testing) and the other is the complete lack of recognition and compensation, in any form, of her contribution to the field of medical science. Both of these have a basis in racism.
One consideration to tackle when thinking about racism in this story is the fact that it was a different time--not a better time, but a time when blacks had no voice. Henrietta died in pre-civil rights 1951.
[I]t is understood that black people didn't question white people's professional judgement.
Even worse, this act of disregard for Henrietta as a person is part of a long history of using blacks for research with little regard for their humanity.
Since at least the 1800s, black oral history has been filled with tales of "night doctors" who kidnapped black people for research. And there were disturbing truths behind those stories.
A perfect example of this mistreatment of blacks, and particularly black women, simply because of their race, is the reference Skloot makes to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.
Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.
The fact that Henrietta's cells were used to save lives does not negate the fact that blacks were routinely used as kind of human guinea pigs. The results do not justify the racist practice.
Skloot also writes about the long-term effects on Henrietta's family members. Several of her sons are outraged--and rightly so--by the injustice and indignity of the treatment her mother received. This quote by one of Henrietta's daughters is a stark and sad reminder that racism was a horrible reality:
“Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.”
Finally, Skloot reminds us that Henrietta's family was never compensated (because, of course, they did not know and their voices would not have been heard even if they had known) for her contribution. One of the Lacks children says:
"She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?”
It is this inherent unfairness and prejudice which is one of the most disturbing evidences of racism in the book. Because she was merely a black woman, Henrietta was not given a choice about how her body was used and was not compensated for her contribution to medical science.
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