During Rebecca’sfirst visit with Cootie, he tells her that no one ever talks about Henrietta. He muses about how strange it is that “her cells…lived longer than her memory,” and adds that Rebecca should go talk to Henrietta’s cousin Cliff.
When Cliff learns that Rebecca is writing a book about Henrietta, he brings her to the now-dilapidated house where Henrietta was born. He remembers how “nice” Henrietta kept it. Upstairs the two find several remnants from the house’s inhabitants, including an open-toed woman’s shoe, which Rebecca speculates may have belonged to Henrietta. Outside, they reach the family cemetery. Cliff shows Rebecca where Henrietta’s mother is buried, and explains that Henrietta is buried somewhere nearby.
Skloot here returns to another theme of the book: Henrietta’s family past, before various tragedies struck the Lacks family. She also re-emphasizes the fact that Henrietta is buried in an unmarked grave—a shocking fact, considering the billions of dollars that her cells have made for corporations and researchers alike.
Cliff expresses confusion about Henrietta’s cells. He knows that it’s amazing that her cells are still alive, and that her cells have cured a lot of other diseases. He then speaks directly to the ground, calling out, “They named them HeLa! And they are still living!”
Since the Lackses believe that Henrietta’s spirit is still present in HeLa, it makes sense to them that she somehow knows the miracles that her cells have created.
Rebecca explores Henrietta’sfamily history: she had a great-great-grandmother who was a slave named Mourning. A white man, John Smith Pleasants, inherited both Mourning and her husband on a tobacco plantation in Clover. Mourning had a son named Edmund Pleasant. On the other side of her family, Henrietta’s maternal grandfather was a white man named Albert Lacks, who divided up his plantation among three sons: Winston, Benjamin, and Albert Lacks, Jr. Albert had five “colored” heirs, probably his children with a former slave named Maria.
Skloot expands her narrative out again, all the way back to before the Civil War, in order to dig into Henrietta’s history. In doing so, she not only gives readers more background about Henrietta’s story, but also reminds us that Henrietta and her family have faced discrimination and racism for centuries. It is impossible, she implies, to tell the story of Henrietta without telling the story of American slavery and racism.
After Albert Lacks’ death, Benjamin sued to take land away from his black heirs. The court gave half of the original plantation to Benjamin Lacks, and the other half to the black Lackses—this land became Lacks Town. Sixteen years later, when Benjamin died, he split his land between his sisters, and seven of his own “colored” heirs, including TommyLacks.
Racial conflict becomes even more important to the story as Skloot reveals that, in fact, there are black Lackses and white Lackses—and that they fought over land during the nineteenth century. There are racial prejudices even within a single family.
Rebecca recounts how omnipresent race still is in Clover. While all insist that race relations have never been bad there, only twelve miles away there is a “Lynch Tree,” and the Ku Klux Klan used to hold meetings at a local school baseball field. Back at the cemetery, Cliff explains that the white Lackses still deny their relation to the black Lackses.
Rebecca goes to visit Carlton Lacks and Ruby Lacks, the oldest white Lackses. They are distant cousins both to each other, and to Henrietta and Day. When Rebecca mentions Henrietta, however, they deny any connection with her, saying that white Lackses and black Lackses never mix.
Although Carlton and Ruby are welcoming and kind to Rebecca, they have no interest whatsoever in associating themselves with the black Lackses. Despite living in the modern era, they remain deeply racist.
Rebecca visits Henrietta’s cousin Gladys, who mentions Lillian,Henrietta’syoungest sibling. In the last letter she sent to the family, sometime in the eighties, Lillian expresses paranoia about why people know about her family, her life in Clover, and Henrietta. Gladys explains that because of her light skin, Lillian “converted to Puerto Rican.”
We witness just how far the consequences of HeLa have spread, even to the point of driving Henrietta’s sister, Lillian, to sever all ties with her family and seek to escape the notoriety that comes with being a Lacks.