Writing Henrietta Lacks Into Herstory

Henrietta Lacks. The name meant nothing to me until I learned two years ago, at 29, that this Black woman had shaped and saved millions of lives–mine and yours included–without ever choosing to or knowing it. Furious that I had never encountered her story before, I was once again struck by the gaping absence, in my 20+ years of elementary, secondary and post-secondary education, of any woman who looked like me. I’ve since read Rebecca Skloot’s biography of Lacks, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, three times—first in shock, second to understand, and third to share with my college students.

Lacks was a cancer patient in the colored ward of Johns Hopkins hospital in the early ’50s. Shortly before she died in 1951, White doctors harvested samples of her cervical tumor for medical research without informing Lacks or her husband. With this violation, Lacks took her place in history in a long line of Black people who endured scientific and medical maltreatment, from Saartjie “Sarah” Baartmen–who was exhibited as a “freak” in the early 1800s, then dissected post-mortem–to the hundreds of Black men unwittingly infected with syphilis by Tuskegee experimenters.

Henrietta’s cells were dubbed “HeLa” and became nothing short of monumentally significant as the first to survive indefinitely outside of the human body. They have since been used in more than 60,000 experiments, aiding in treatments for diseases ranging from the basic flu to ghastly cancers. A scientific jackpot, they have also been commercially packaged, bought, shipped, and sold all over the world, serving as a “standard laboratory workhorse.” In this way Henrietta, like many Black women before her, became regarded as property, rather than a person.

Yet despite our tendencies to objectify and abridge, Henrietta was a person–a poor Black woman whose surviving family remembers her joy for life. Nicknamed “Hennie,” she meticulously painted her toenails a deep shade of red and loved to dance. She lived and died during legal racial segregation; she completed the 6th grade and had her first of five children at 14. Far more than the cells that were stolen from her, Henrietta was a cousin, neighbor, wife and mother who on her final night requested that her children be well cared for.

Rebecca Skloot’s book about Henrietta and her cells, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, creates a space for Henrietta’s surviving family to speak out about the continued exploitation of Henrietta’s life and their own. But the privilege of Skloot, a formally educated White woman, deserves a critical feminist eye. It’s unlikely she could have brought this hidden herstory to light without her connections, her background and her white privilege–she persistently pursued the story, initially against the family’s will.

Yet I feel similarly about Skloot’s book as about Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, another White-woman-authored book about Black women’s lives: I think we are better with Skloot’s labor than without. Not because I believe that Skloot is as transparent and accountable as she could be in relation to her racial and class privilege–despite her donations to the Lacks family’s well-being, I believe Skloot could address more clearly how she herself has benefited from the exploitation of Henrietta and her family, receiving numerous accolades in response to her book and even a movie deal. For example, she doesn’t mark her at-first-unwelcome entry into the Lacks family’s lives as potentially problematic, nor does she contemplate how her book might further the systemic exploitation the family has already endured.

However, just as much as we need to question the politics of who writes Henrietta Lacks into our herstories, we need to know her name and story. So please, help me share it.

Image of Henrietta and David Lacks in 1945 shared by The Lacks Family on Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

  1. I have a problem with the blog because if you read the book, you clearly can read that her devotion to this family is not because she is some “white” woman telling the story of a black woman and her family. As she stated in her book, others have tried to approach the family, some individuals from communitities of color, and the family SHOT them down. Her dedication to the family and to make sure Henrietta’s story is made public was sincere and you discredit her with this post. How dare you! Yes, we can take issues with the stuff you say, but did you ever think that she is not focusing solely around race but rather Henrietta’s story. She talks about her struggles getting the family to open up as well as the daughter who was key to the story. In every interview she acknowledges the fact that she is white but just because she doens’t meet your standards does not mean that the story is less powerful.

    I think you should be ashamed of this post. Clearly you did not read the book as closely as other did and obviously you did not feel the power of the connection Rebecca had to (and still has) to this family. I’m embarrassed that Ms. would even consider posting this blog when it has a clear agenda that does not align with the actual purpose of the book. Shame on you!

  2. Dr. Rachel Griffin says:

    Hi Jason,

    I appreciate that you took the time to respond and while I respect your interpretation of my blog, my interpretation is quite different. From my perspective as a biracial (Black and White) Black feminist scholar, Skloot’s accountability toward her access to systemic privilege in her book is not as attentive as it could be. This does not negate the power of the story that she created (as I mention in the blog), from my perspective, but rather serves as an indication of how important critical self-reflexivity is when authors have more access to systemic power than those they write about.

    I encourage you to consider what systemically privileged identities that you hold that might be influencing not only your interpretations of Skloot’s work but also your interpretation of my blog. For example, given that Ms. Lacks experience and subsequently Skloot’s work, is primarily located at the intersections of race, gender, and class of course my identities as a middle-class woman of color make a difference in how I interpret Skloot’s story.

    Lastly, given that you are engaging with the Ms. blog, I imagine that you are familiar with contemporary feminisms. In this vein, momentarily focusing on race at the intersections, why should Skloot’s Whiteness be above critique when her story is largely situated in the context of race? More directly stated, I find nothing shameful as a woman of color about critically reflecting upon and asking difficult questions about how White authors write about people who look like me.

    My best,
    Rachel

  3. GirlJanitor says:

    The Tuskegee experiment didn’t infect them with syphilis. They already had it. The experimenters lied to them, withheld treatment, and “observed” the effects.

    That being said, I’m glad to read an article that addresses the issue of Skloot’s role as an undeniable part of the exploitation of the Lacks family. I don’t think she had malicious intent, but anyone who denies that the history of HeLa, Henrietta Lacks, and Johns Hopkins is essentially about race in a very fundamental way, and that the author’s whiteness is a factor that even she acknowledges is hopelessly naive. I have to admit that weighed very heavily on my mind in the latter third of the book, and I figured that the author is the one raking in the bucks, and the Lacks family would probably get a charity page like the one linked to here.

    I agree that Skloot should have been more upfront in addressing that the book itself is a source of financial benefit to HER, not the Lacks family.

  4. If it wasn’t for Ms. Skloot, I, along with thousands of others, would have never heard of Henrietta Lacks. I do not believe, for even a nanosecond, that her efforts in writing about Henrietta were driven by profit. Instead, she knew the Lacks’ family was terribly wronged and chose to tell Henrietta’s story. It has nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with injustice. Should all authors include a disclaimer stating their books will be making money for them? I think not. Ms. Skloot invested her own time, money and exhaustive efforts in writing the book. She should make money from it. This blog reads like it was written by a jealous eighth-grader instead of an educated adult.

  5. randal williams says:

    I agree that Rebecca Skloot would have benefited financially from writing the book, and any TV or film rights and this should be acknowledged. An episode of Law and Order ,called “Immortal” was based on the HeLa story but with fictional characters. I gather a movie is being planned.
    My daughter is studying the book as part of her Science degree and I read it with great interest. It certainly raises many ethical issues about human experimentation and compensation, but we have to remember this all took place sixty years ago when things were very different.

  6. Dolores Claesson says:

    Perhaps, the author could have donated all of the profits or a portion of the profits to research targeted to cervical cancer in the name of Henrietta Lacks. That might be a good way to immortalize her. A foundation called the Henrietta Lacks Cervical Cancer Research Center ? There is the Lustgarten pancreatic research foundation and others. My daughter has given her blood to a local cancer hospital to forward their research efforts. I would gladly donate to science to further our knowledge of various diseases. Maybe the people leaving comments can set up this fund and people of color and colorless can all donate and doesn’t that make more sense than bickering. Dr. Rachel Griffin it sounds like this project is an ideal one for you to organize.

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