The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) Character Analysis

Henrietta’s youngest child, Joe is physically and emotionally abused after his mother dies. He grows up with severe mental issues and problems with authority and is eventually imprisoned for murder. In jail, he converts to Islam and changes his name to Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman. Eventually Deborah and Rebecca help him learn more about his mother’s legacy, and he is deeply moved by what he finds.

Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quotes below are all either spoken by Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) or refer to Joe Lacks (Zakariyya). For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Random House edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks published in 2010.
Chapter 30 Quotes

Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever sellin them cells—they get rich off our mother and we got nothing…All those damn people didn’t deserve her help as far as I’m concerned.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca and Deborah go to visit Zakariyya, Henrietta's disturbed youngest son, still fuming decades later over his mother's death, and the medical establishment's profit off of her cells.

Zakariyya articulates an attitude of rage, suspicion, and jealousy. He believes that the world is ot to cheat him, and that the researchers and patients who benefited from Henrietta's tissue "didn't deserve her help."

Yet although Zakariyya might seem unreasonable and even unhinged, he in fact has every reason to be angry. Destitute and mentally ill, Zakariyya's never recovered from his mother's death, undergoing years of abuse and neglect as a result. Yet while he suffered from Henrietta's demise, doctors, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies thrived, using her cells to make both medical advances and profits. Given this disparity, it is easy to understand Zakariyya's rage, and his belief that the world has cheated him out of both money and a mother. 

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Chapter 32 Quotes

Deborah and Zakariyya stared at the screen like they’d gone into a trance, mouths open, cheeks sagging. It was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies.
[Deborah] raised the vial and touched it to her lips. “You’re famous,” she whispered, “Just nobody knows it.”

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks, Joe Lacks (Zakariyya)
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

Within Christoph Lengauer's lab, Deborah and Zakariyya are able to look at a living sample of HeLa under a microscope. Rebecca reflects that they haven't come so close to "seeing their mother alive" in decades. 

In this passage, Rebecca perfectly marries the blend of personal and scientific that defines her narrative. Together, she and Lengauer have used the science of microscopes and cell replication to bring two adult children close to what they consider the spirit of their mother. By acknowledging the humanity of Zakariyya and Deborah, the reporter and the scientist have used science for a moment of emotional healing and connection.

Equally poignant and moving is Deborah's decision to tell her mother--through a vial of HeLa--that she is famous, although "nobody knows it." Clearly, Deborah believes that she is in the presence of her mother. Her first impulse, in this deeply profound moment, is to tell her mother about all the good she has done, and how she has changed the world. Unselfish and limitlessly giving, Deborah wishes above all that her mother--a poor, uneducated, black woman--could realize her staggering importance. 

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Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) Character Timeline in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The timeline below shows where the character Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) appears in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: The Exam
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About a week later, the twenty-nine-year-old Henrietta is pregnant yet again with Joe, her fifth child. Sadie and Margaret believe that the pain had to do with the... (full context)
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...The chart also details that Henrietta has an epileptic daughter. Two months ago, after delivering Joe, Henrietta had significant blood in her urine, and the cells around her cervix seemed abnormal.... (full context)
Chapter 5: Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside
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...As she grew older, however, Elsie began to have accidents. When Henrietta became pregnant with Joe, the couple could no longer care for Elsie. On the advice of doctors, they moved... (full context)
Chapter 15: “Too Young to Remember”
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Deborah, Sonny, and Joe are never told exactly what happened to their mother. In the meantime, their cousin Ethel... (full context)
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...leaves. If they ever stop, Ethel beats them. She focuses most of her vitriol on Joe, hitting him for no reason, forcing him to stand in a dark basement for hours... (full context)
Chapter 19: “The Most Critical Time on Earth is Now”
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...Deborah’solder brothers, Lawrence has opened a convenience store, and Sonny has joined the air force. Joe, however, has been fighting with teachers and fellow students. He drops out of school, ends... (full context)
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Only weeks later, a boy named Eldridge Lee Ivy threatens Joe. For three months, Joe ignores him, but in September 1970, after a night of drinking... (full context)
Chapter 23: “It’s Alive”
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...about. A short while after, Hsu writes to Lawrence asking if someone can go to Zakariyya’s prison to collect blood from him. Along with her letter, she encloses a copy of... (full context)
Chapter 26: Breach of Privacy
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Zakariyya, meanwhile, is paroled after seven years in prison. He continues to have problems with anger... (full context)
Chapter 30: Zakariyya
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The next day, Deborah takes the apprehensive Rebecca to meet Zakariyya. They travel to his apartment along with Deborah’s two grandsons. Deborah assures Rebecca that she... (full context)
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Rebecca describes Zakariyya’s tiny apartment, in which he’s hung pictures of Henrietta and Elsie. He expresses a belief... (full context)
Chapter 31: Hela, Goddess of Death
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The day after meeting with Zakariyya, Deborah receives a mysterious call telling her not to trust any white people asking about... (full context)
Chapter 32: “All That’s My Mother”
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...that Rebecca is being paid by Hopkins). On May 11, 2001, Rebecca escorts Deborah and Zakariyya to Johns Hopkins. They pass the statue ofJesus and head towards Christoph Lengauer’slab. An amiable... (full context)
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...to an incubator where HeLa cells are growing. Using a microscope, Christoph allows Deborah and Zakariyya to look at their mother’s cells multiplying, before explaining basic cell biology to the two.... (full context)
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...shocked Deborah that he believes Henrietta’s story is deeply important, and adds that he understands Zakariyya’sanger. He asserts that the family should get money from HeLa-fueled research. When they leave, Zakariyya... (full context)
Chapter 38: The Long Road to Clover
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After the baptism, “not much changed for the Lackses.” Lawrence and Zakariyya occasionally think about suing Johns Hopkins, Sonny has a quintuple bypass and ends up hundreds... (full context)