The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Rebecca Skloot

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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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:

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:

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:
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:
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: