The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Questions and Answers
by Rebecca Skloot

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Why did Joe change his name?

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Joe changed his name to Zakariyya in prison due to his conversion to Islam. Many African American males have taken this same decision, especially those associated with Radical Black Rights groups such as the Nation of Islam during the civil rights period. Famous examples include Malcom X and Muhammad Ali. Changing one’s name is often a physical statement of intent, reflecting an inner conviction to change, to discover a new identity independent of that one was born with. Such an impulse is especially understandable in Joe’s case, given his horrific experiences as a child, undergoing torture at the hands of his mother’s cousin Ethel. His decision is also potentially motivated by guilt, a desire to be someone different than the person who committed a murder.

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