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.
Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity...They kept growing like nothing anyone had ever seen, doubling the numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions.
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.
Each day, Henrietta’s doctors increased her dose of radiation, hoping it would shrink the tumors and ease the pain until her death. Each day the skin on her abdomen burned blacker and blacker, and the pain grew worse.
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.
Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. “When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”
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…
No one told Sonny, Deborah, or Joe what had happened to their mother, and they were afraid to ask…As far as the children knew, their mother was there one day, gone the next.
It sound strange…but her cells done lived longer than her memory.
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.
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.
[Deborah] and I spent the day and night together as I soaked up as much of her story as I could, constantly worried she’d change her mind and stop talking to me. But in reality, it seemed now that Deborah had started talking, she might never stop again.
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.
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.”
Take one of me and my sister by her and my mother grave…It’ll be the only picture in the world with the three of us almost together.
In that moment…I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta’s cells makes perfect sense. Of course they were growing and surviving decades after death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they’d led to cures for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that. The Bible tells us so.
This child will someday know that her great-grandmother Henrietta helped the world!...So will that child…and that child…and that child. This is their story now. They need to take hold of it and let it teach them they can change the world too.
Heaven looks just like Clover, Virginia. My mother and I always loved it down there more than anywhere else in the world.