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
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!”
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.
Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?...I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.
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.
Henrietta’s doctor and his colleagues forever linked Henrietta, Lawrence, Sonny, Deborah, Zakariyya, their children, and all future generations of Lackses to the HeLa cells, and the DNA inside them. And Henrietta’s identity would soon spread from lab to lab as quickly as her cells.
They said they been doin experiments on her and they wanted to come test my children to see if they got that cancer killed their mother.
Deborah couldn’t stop worrying. She was terrified that she might have cancer, and consumed with the idea that researchers had done—and were perhaps still doing—horrible things to her mother…[she] imagined her mother on the moon and being blown up by bombs. She…couldn’t stop wondering if the parts of her mother they were using in research could actually feel the things scientists were doing to them.
I want to tell them a little what HeLa means to me as a young cancer researcher, and how grateful I am for their donation years ago…I do not represent Hopkins, but I am a part of it. In a way I might even want to apologize.
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.
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.
Whenever we read books about science, it’s always HeLa this and HeLa that. Some people know those are the initials of a person, but they don’t know who that person is. It’s important history.
People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime. I used to get so mad about that to where it made me sick and I had to take pills. But I don’t got it in me no more to fight. I just want to know who my mother was.