The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon

The problems of racism, classism, and sexism in America are crucial to understanding the narrative of Henrietta Lacks. A poor and under-educated black woman, Henrietta had essentially no say in her medical care during her life. She simply did what her doctors told her and had faith that she would be healed, even when her cancer treatments put her through tremendous physical and psychological pain. Her doctors, in return, failed at every turn to keep her informed of their decisions and methods, even neglecting to tell her that her cancer treatment would make her infertile. Their arrogant attitude towards her stemmed largely from Henrietta’s low social and economic status as a black woman, which made her white, well-educated doctors believe that she didn’t even have the capacity to understand their decisions.

Of course, these views grew even worse after Henrietta died, when her cells became known only as HeLa. The scientists who used her tissues in their research and innovations rarely had any idea of who Henrietta was; while they received awards and recognitions, she stayed completely unnoticed for her contribution to the scientific community. Even worse, the researchers in question completely failed to keep her family informed of the work that they were doing, or to compensate them in any way. As a result, the Lacks children grew up not to be proud of their mother’s “immortality,” but instead to be traumatized by it. The scientific community still felt no need to include this largely poor, black family in their discoveries. Despite sharing the genes that helped researchers study everything from polio to cancer to chromosomes to radiation, Henrietta Lacks’ descendants didn’t even have health insurance. In fact, immoral reporters and swindlers even tried to take advantage of the Lackses, believing them to be stupid and gullible because of their lack of education.

Towards the end of the book, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, tells the author—a white journalist named Rebecca Skloot—that it’s too late for the generation of her and her brothers. Rebecca should seek instead to help their children, bettering their socioeconomic status using the profits she will make with her book about Henrietta. Soon after this, Deborah dies, her health essentially destroyed by conditions that would have been completely preventable in a more privileged member of society. The destruction of Deborah’s generation of Lackses is proof that racism, classism, and sexism are still alive and well in America, and by the end of the narrative, the writer has clearly joined in the fight against all three.

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Racism, Classism, and Sexism Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Below you will find the important quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks related to the theme of Racism, Classism, and Sexism.
Prologue Quotes

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

As she begins her story, the narrator--journalist Rebecca Skloot--reflects on its significance, and its personal effect on her. She emphasizes to her readers that this narrative is not simply about HeLa, the cells that revolutionized cellular biology, but about the human beings behind those cells.

Making clear that this will be a story of faith and family as well as science, Rebecca takes care to credit Henrietta's relatives--the very people who feel forgotten by history and by the medical establishment that profited off of her immortal cancer cells.

In so doing, Rebecca firmly states that her allegiance is to the descendants and their narrative, and that she means to harshly critique the medical establishment for the way it treated them. Although she by no means diminishes the scientific wonders achieved with Henrietta's cells, nor does she let doctors, researchers, and institutions off the hook for the bigoted and arrogant way that they treated both Henrietta and her relatives. 

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Chapter 1 Quotes

For Henrietta, walking into Hopkins was like entering a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language…she’d never heard the words cervix or biopsy. She didn’t read or write much, and she hadn’t studied science in school. She, like most black patients, only went to Hopkins when she thought she had no choice.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: Johns Hopkins
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca begins Henrietta's story at Johns Hopkins, a hospital renowned for its medical accomplishments and for its willingness to treat poor and minority patients. The narrative, however, questions Hopkins' inclusivity, noting how "foreign" and intimidating it would have seemed to Henrietta.

The narrator also takes this opportunity to introduce race as a vital and omnipresent theme throughout the book. She notes that many black patients viewed going to the hospital as a last resort, and later expands on the American medical establishment's long history of racism and unethical practices when it came to minority patients.

That Henrietta is willing to go go the hospital despite these circumstances also underlines just how sick she is. Although she fears the hospital, she is in too much pain to avoid going there any longer--an early sign of just how sick she is. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

Everything always just about the cells and don’t even worry about her name and was HeLa even a person…You know what I really want? I want to know, what did my mother smell like? For all my life I just don’t know anything, not even little common little things, like what color did she like? Did she like to dance? Did she breastfeed me? Lord, I’d like to know that. But nobody ever say nothing.

Related Characters: Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Reflecting on her mother's legacy, Deborah expresses anger and confusion, still incredulous that people can benefit from her mother's cells without even knowing her name. She emphasizes that Henrietta was a person, and should be remembered for her human qualities rather than for her (unknowing) scientific contribution.

What also comes through in this passage is Deborah's continuing feelings of loss and grief, despite the many decades since Henrietta's death. She longs to know how her mother smelled, her favorite color, and if she liked to dance. In short, she still yearns for a childhood, and a mother, whom she never had.

Without ever saying it, Rebecca makes clear how damaging the continuing controversy around HeLa has been to Deborah. Having lost her mother many years ago, the wound is constantly reopened by insensitive researchers and journalists who think of Henrietta as a resource rather than a human, and who fail to understand Deborah's  longing for her mother. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

Now I don’t know for sure if a spirit got Henrietta or if a doctor did it…but I do know that her cancer wasn’t no regular cancer, cause regular cancer don’t keep on growing after a person die.

Related Characters: Hector Henry (Cootie) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Commenting on the immortality of HeLa, Henrietta's cousin, Cootie, states his relative must have been tampered with, either by a doctor or "a spirit." He believes that HeLa's longevity proves this fact, since "regular cancer" would not continue to live even after its host had passed on.

Although Rebecca comes from a background of science, logic, and medicine, she never derides the more religious or superstitious views of Henrietta's family. Instead, she gives them their due, trying to understand their origins, and allowing various relatives to voice their views within the pages of her book. 

Further, as Rebecca will make clear, Cootie's suspicion that a doctor may have altered Henrietta in some way is not entirely unfounded. The American medical establishment of the mid-twentieth century was incredibly cavalier when it came to the bodies of black patients and women, often performing procedures or conducting experiments on them without informing them, let alone obtaining informed consent. 

Chapter 13 Quotes

Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies…

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: Tuskegee Institute
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in her narrative, Rebecca broadens out, moving from Henrietta's personal story to HeLa's initial effects on modern medicine. Even as she does so, however, she makes sure to stay focused on one of her main themes: race and science in America. 

In this passage, Rebecca spotlights the effort to discover a polio vaccine. In order to do so, researchers needed to mass-produce large amounts of HeLa, a task that fell to the black, largely female "scientists and technicians" of the Tuskegee Institute.

On one hand, this moment is an uplifting and optimistic one, as black women use "cells from a black woman" to help end the plague of polio which had been afflicting "millions of Americans." Yet there is a terrible irony in this effort's location: the Tuskegee Institute is also infamous for its syphilis studies, which involved letting huge numbers of black men go untreated and die in an effort by white researchers to further understand the STD. Thus, on one campus and at the same time, racial progress and deadly racism co-existed. 

Chapter 16 Quotes

The white Lackses know their kin all buried in here with ours cause they family. They know it, but they’ll never admit it. They just say, “Them Black Lackses, they ain’t kin!”

Related Characters: Cliff Garret (speaker)
Related Symbols: Clover and Lacks Town
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca now turns her attention to the history of the Lackses--which, it turns out, is filled with mystery and racial divisiveness. Although some members of the Lacks clan are black while others are wait, the black Lackses claim that the white Lackses will never "admit" that they are related to the African-American branch of their family. And indeed, when Rebecca visits a family of white Lackses, they confirm this bigoted viewpoint. 

In exploring Henrietta's familial background, Rebecca has of course further humanized her, showing how many people Henrietta was tied to. At the same time, she also uses this passage as an opportunity to further explore America's deeply held problems of racism and classism. Even members of the same family, she reflects, can be divided by their skin color.

The pervasiveness and perniciousness of racism is a constant theme throughout the book, one that Rebecca continually returns to in order to prove just how deeply entwined it is with American history--and with the history of Henrietta Lacks. 

Chapter 17 Quotes

Every human being has an inalienable right to determine what shall be done with his own body. These patients then had a right to know…the contents of the syringe: and if this knowledge was to cause fear and anxiety or make them frightened, they had a right to be fearful and frightened and thus say NO to the experiment.

Related Characters: Louis Lefkowitz (speaker), Chester Southam
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Rebecca expands out, using the story of Rebecca Lacks as a lens through which to examine some of the most important and controversial issues in American medicine. In this case, the issue is informed consent. Rebecca describes the origins of the term, and the contentious disputes that led to its creation. 

In this case, Rebecca quotes Louis Lefkowitz, the Attorney General of New York State, and one of the first advocates for patients' rights. In this statement, Lefkowitz makes clear that every person has a right "to determine what shall be done with his own body," and to say no to any procedure that may be performed on them.

Intuitive as it may seem today, this level of consent was unheard of during the mid-twentieth century. Doctors believed that people did not know what was best for them and that as experts, they had the right to make decisions without consulting their own patients. This belief was definitely true in the case of Henrietta--both while treating her and when harvesting HeLa, her physicians never thought for a moment to explain to her what was going on, let alone obtain her consent. 

Chapter 21 Quotes

Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?...I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.

Related Characters: Lawrence Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (the author)
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

While being interviewed by Rebecca, Lawrence Lacks turns the tables, asking the reporter to tell him what Henrietta's cells "really did." While he knows that they were "important" in some way, he complains that "nobody tells us nothing." 

This short, plain passage vividly illustrates just how in-the-dark Henrietta's children were about her effects on the world. While they knew that HeLa was famous in some way, they had no real concept of what it had done, and of the huge benefits that their mother had provided for millions (if not billions) of people.

While the Lackses acutely feel that they have been cheated financially from profiting off of Henrietta's cells, this passage points to another loss: that this woman's own children do not understand how truly revolutionary HeLa was, and how many people Henrietta had helped. Instead of being proud of their mother, the Lackses are simply confused and indignant. Far from being their fault, this ignorance stems from the fact that no one had ever bothered to explain HeLa's--and Henrietta's--legacy to them. 

John Hopkin didn’t give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part, cause I don’t know if they didn’t give us information because they was making money out of it or if they was just wanting to keep us in the dark about it. I think they made money out of it, cause they were selling her cells all over the world and shipping them for dollars.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Sonny Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca interviews Sonny, another one of the Lacks children. Here he expresses anger at what he views as Johns Hopkins' cover-up of HeLa, and their continued quest to keep the profits from the cell from the Lacks children.

Although Sonny's view is an overly simplified one, his indignation is absolutely justified. At the time of Rebecca's research, most of the Lackses still struggled to get by, often living from paycheck to paycheck. Most ironically of all, many members of the family had spotty insurance at best, meaning that they could not benefit from the very medical advances that originated from their mother's cells. 

At the same time, Sonny's anger also reflects a suspicion widespread in the African-American community towards the medical establishment. In many ways, Sonny does not trust doctors anymore than Henrietta did. He believes them to be deceitful, racist, and greedy--and although such a view is an exaggerated one, it is undoubtedly true that the medical establishment treated the Lacks family in an immensely unfair and prejudiced manner. 

You know what is a myth?...Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Bobbette Cooper (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca goes on to interview Bobbette, Lawrence's wife. Here Bobbette articulates another complaint within the Lacks family: that doctors didn't ask Henrietta for the cells, but rather stole them. To the Lackses, this makes the massive profits that the medical establishment has made off of HeLa even more illegitimate and unfair. 

In her anger, Bobbette also happens to be correct. Although it was customary at the time for doctors not to ask patients' consent before removing their tissue, such a practice would be unthinkable today. Further, physicians treated Henrietta with even less respect (and gave her less agency) because she was a black woman.

As a member of not one but two disenfranchised groups, Henrietta was particularly likely to be used and victimized by those in positions of authority. Although the doctors and researchers who discovered HeLa meant well and did not understand the harm in what they were doing, they nevertheless acted in immensely racist and sexist ways in their treatment of Henrietta, and their harvesting of HeLa. 

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. 

Chapter 31 Quotes

Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nothing bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

Deborah reflects on her mother's death, stating that she can't be "mad at science," because of how much it has benefited people in the twenty-first century, herself included. At the same time, though, Deborah wishes that she could have "health insurance" so that she could afford the drugs that Henrietta's cells "probably helped make." 

Although Deborah is uneducated and speaks plainly, she has here highlighted a tragic irony in the Lacks family's lives: that although their mother's cells helped to catapult modern medicine forward, they are too poor to benefit from many of those same advances.

At the same time, though, Deborah articulates an astounding amount of forgiveness and understanding. While Zakariyya and Sonny hate the medical establishment for supposedly cheating them out of HeLa profits, Deborah refuses to be "mad." She sees the bigger picture, realizing how much better off the world is due to HeLa.