Introduction

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So you’re going to teach Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. While it has challenging content—racism and dense scientific material—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will give them unique insight into scientific ethics, patients' rights, and important themes surrounding the history of racism, poverty, and medicine in American history. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance 

  • Publication Date: 2010
  • Recommended Grade Level: 11-12
  • Approximate Word Count: 101,000
  • Author: Rebecca Skloot
  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society, Person vs. Supernatural, Person vs. Self
  • Narration: First-Person and Third-Person Omniscient
  • Setting: Baltimore, Maryland, US
  • Structure or Dominant Literary Devices: Prose, Science Writing, Personal Narrative
  • Tone: Curious, Observational


Texts that Go Well with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley, is a dystopian novel set in the World State, where a futuristic government rules over most of the globe. In the World State, humans are genetically modified, anesthetized, and organized within an intelligence-based social hierarchy. When protagonist Bernard travels to a reservation outside of the World State, he experiments with bringing its inhabitants to the tightly controlled world he knows but ultimately fails. Many find this novel particularly relevant in the modern era, when prescription drug use is on the rise and technology plays an increasing role in daily life and governance as a means of pacification.

The Color Purple (1982), by Alice Walker, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel that explores the life of Celie, a black girl living in the impoverished South. The epistolary novel follows Celie’s development from an abused child to a woman who takes control of her destiny. Celie confronts many of the same struggles and racial inequalities as Henrietta and Deborah Lacks.

Hidden Figures (2016), by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a work of nonfiction that explores the unsung role black women played in American aeronautics during the 1960s. Known as “human computers,” Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson overcame the prejudice and bigotry that were pervasive in the American South to make significant contributions to mathematics, science, and engineering.

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(The entire section contains 580 words.)

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