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.