The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Presence of Racism

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“When people ask-and seems like people always be askin to where I can’t never get away from it-I say, Yeah, that’s right, My mother name was Henrietta Lacks, she died in 1951, John Hopkins took her cells and them cells are still livin today, still multiplyin, still growin, and spreadin if you don’t keep em frozen.”

In pursuit of her curiosity, Skloot (the author) had called a directory in which she was granted access to conversation with Deborah Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta Lacks. The author presents Deborah Lacks’ first hand account of her reaction to her mother’s cells being irreversibly duplicated and being adopted by laboratories around the world. It was in Skloot’s interests to spark conversation with Deborah due to an urge of discovering the mysteries of Henrietta Lacks and how her family was living during the widespread distribution of Henrietta’s cells.

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Deborah Lacks is the daughter of Henrietta lacks. After the passing of Henrietta, the best person to converse with would be Deborah after looking at a family picture in which she was the only person who wasn’t smiling. It was as if a grave concern could be observed simply from looking at the picture which would motivate Skloot to pursue Deborah. In regards to the quote itself, Deborah seems to be disturbed by the repetitiveness of people asking her questions regarding her mother. It is to the point where she ‘can’t get away from it’. 

It is also imperative to notice the style in which she speaks. It can be considered as improper English enunciation as well as improper grammar. She doesn’t seem to come from a rich family which can afford education; it makes it easier for her mother’s cells to be boycotted without the family being rewarded with any funds. They don’t really know what happened or how to handle it since they would have a lack of influence as well as money. It should be noted that if Henrietta was to be replaced with another woman with the exact same health condition, but was wealthy and affluent, would her cells also have been boycotted in the same manner? 

Towards the end of the quote, an anaphoric structure can also be observed where Deborah starts of three dependent clauses with ‘still…’ to display the uses of her mother cells. Deborah’s mother has been stripped of the characteristic of being human when her cells are passed around as monitable products with the Lacks’ family being served no commission. “White farmers slept upstairs in lofts and private rooms; black farmers slept in the dark underbelly of the warehouse with the horses, mules, and dogs, on a dusty dirt floor lined with rows of wooden stalls for livestock, and mountains of empty liquor bottles piled almost to the ceiling.”

Whilst discussing farm life for the Lacks’s family, the quality of the farm life is also discussed. There is a distinct difference between the standards of living for a white farmer in comparison to a black farmer. Their form of shelter is not determined based off their work or merit but rather is determined through the color of their skin. Although this quote does not directly address the issue of Henrietta Lacks’ cells being boycotted without the consent of Henrietta, this quote serves to present an overwhelming concern far greater than the topic at hand. More specifically, the quality of life as observed in the aspect of farm life could present vital information as to why the boycott of Henrietta’s cells occurred in the first place; it could directly be related to the prevalence of racism in this era. 

If racism is present in a simple matter such as where a person is accommodated, then there is a strong possibility that the boycott of Henrietta’s cells could have occurred so easily without any repercussion. Millions of dollars have been made through Henrietta’s cells and we have to ask ourselves: did this occur as a result of racially influenced minds having the ability to boycott an innocent black woman in a racially influenced era? Although the answer itself is unclear, it is clear that blacks have been significantly mistreated in comparison to whites. 

This may be the purpose as to why the author had included a detail of mentioning an act of racism; it is to further delve thought and discussion to the reasoning behind mistreatment of Henrietta and many others like her. By adding individual accounts of racist encounters, the readers themselves begin to develop thoughts and ideas as to why Henrietta was the one targeted and not any other person who also had cervical cancer. At the end of the quote, the narration is observed to describe the housing of the blacks as filthy and their is a subconscious feeling that the reader is able to attach between the filth and black people. 

More specifically, the use of the metaphor ‘mountains of empty liquor bottles almost piled to the ceiling,’ sparks a feeling of disgust when thinking of the black farmers and their accommodation. The antiparallel structure between whites and blacks in this specific occasion serves to give the reader a feeling that blacks are alcoholics whereas whites are upper class and therefore have the right to live in lofts and private rooms. However, after reading the next few lines, it is clarified that the presence of alcohol bottles are as a result of the white farmers partying and engaging in gambling and prostitution (Skloot 40). It is highly unjust that the blakc farmers are already only provided with the worst form of housing available and on top of that, they are presented with the waste from white farmers.

Whilst discussing the volatility of differentiating forms of cervical cancer, the top doctors within the field are in discord. One such doctor includes TeLinde who has a strong opinion as to how dangerous carcinoma in situ is and the dire need to treat it as soon as possible to decrease annual deaths caused by cervical cancer. In order to prove his theory of carcinoma in situ leading to invasive carcinoma which is more fatal, he decides to test on ‘colored’ patients as a form of payment without their knowledge. The above quote is how TeLinde is able to justify his thinking of using patients as research subjects since Hopkins is the owner of the hospital and if the thinking aligns with his thinking, then it should be suitable to enact upon the thinking.

Telinde is a phenomenal doctor and has great influence within the field of the cervix. It is very clear and unambiguous that he does care about women dying by this particular form of cancer and that he has a motive to decrease the amount of deaths by seeking a remedy from where the cervical cancer is originally developed. However, there is something that is quite eerie about the execution of his mission to examine whether or not carcinoma in situ is dangerous and leads to invasive cervical cancer. As stated, he does care about women, but it seems to be as if TeLinde has a flaw within him as to what he considers a ‘woman’. 

Despite being biologically identical, TeLinde doesn’t seem to consider black women to be women in the same sense that he considers white women to be women. Although it isn’t stated clearly that he only conducted research on black women, it can be concluded that a majority of his test subjects were black women as a result of his decision to test on women from the public wards. As seen previously in the text, the Hopkins hospital was considered a prestigious and charitable hospitable in which black and white people could both enter to seek medical treatment (this was rare in such an era). 

This would mean that black people such as Henrietta would travel long distances just to seek treatment from this hospital as a result of it being the only option.When the treatment in public wards is free; this would attract even more black people due to them being in lower socio-economic classes. The statement and assumption that ‘TeLinde cares about women’ should be rewritten to ‘TeLinde cares about white women’. If the latter was to be true, then TeLinde would have tested on women from private wards too and would seek their consent before taking action instead of utilizing women from public wards only. 

TeLinde recalls it as a form of payment for women entering free into the public wards of the hospital (Skloot 49) . Yet the women aren’t informed of this ‘payment’ that they must pay. Henrietta was tested for free and was one who wasn’t informed of doctors using her as a research subject; in turn, her cells are now everywhere used for developing medications yet Henrietta hasn’t been paid her due despite her fulfilling her ‘payment’ to the Hopkins hospital.

In light of Henrietta’s continued pain even after her cervical cancer was supposedly treated, she still feels as though pain is very prevalent across her body in multiple areas. However, the doctors ignored her when she would claim there was recurring pain. Before this quote, a fact was presented that black patients receive treatment later than white patients when their illnesses or diseases enter stages of being more fatal. Additionally, medical information tends to not be presented to black patients as a result of doctors thinking that the information is unfit for them to digest. The mentioned pain of Henrietta could have occurred as a result of the doctor’s ignorance.

 It is very apparent that that Henrietta’s doctors have no regards to care for their patients. The doctor’s notes all revolve around the idea that she is fine and is fit to go home; yet Henrietta has accounts of her saying she is struggling highly in transportation to and from the hotel. In previous chapters, it is said that she would walk to the hospital, but after her treatments, she is struggling to walk 

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