Black History Book Tuesday: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Six years ago, I read and reviewed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. HBO will premiere a movie based on the events in the book on Saturday, April 22 at 8pm. I would strongly advise everyone to see the film if they have not read the book. The story is as important as it is haunting.

The cells of Henrietta Lacks have been used in many medical breakthroughs including the development of the polio vaccine, drugs to treat herpes, leukemia, influenza, Parkinson’s disease, in-vitro fertilization and gene mapping. Despite this fact, most people do not know the story of the woman behind the cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks takes the reader on a journey of three women, Henrietta Lacks, her daughter Deborah and the author Rebecca Skloot as the author tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family and their brush with history.

The book opens with the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who has discovered that something is not right with her cervical area. This would later be found to be a particularly virulent strain of cervical cancer that would cause her death, which is only the beginning of the story. The story provides insight into so many aspects of life at the time: segregation, poor medical treatment for blacks by the “best” hospitals in the country, and the unspeakable conditions for those blacks who were diagnosed with any aspect of mental illness or disorders.

Deborah emerges as the force from Henrietta Lack’s family who is strong enough to seek the truth about her mother and her sister, who died in a mental institution. She is fragile, though, undoubtedly in great part due to childhood abuse, domestic abuse and other hardships she has faced in life. One thing about her that I remember is that she was determined to understand the history of the situation without bitterness, which I found remarkable given what her family had been through.

Rebecca Skloot does an awesome job explaining the scientific significance of the events surrounding the cell harvesting and its aftermath. She documents the attitudes of the researchers and assistants involved and even includes research on the Lacks’ white relatives and the contrasts between their lives. I admire her tenacity and sensitivity where getting in touch with and speaking to the family was involved.

She has even created the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help¬†needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefitting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent. ¬†Among the first grants were tuition and book expenses paid to five of Henrietta’s descendants and health care and emergency needs for several members of her immediate family.

If you haven’t read the book, read it. You will not be able to put it down.

Backpacks and hooking up

This morning, I was walking Little A to class. She saw a little girl with a backpack with her favorite Disney Fairies on the back. She decided to follow that girl because she wanted to take a closer look at the backpack. While the backpack had the fairies and glitter and colors that Little A. loved, it was not made very well. I’d give it until Fall at best. The backpack Little A has is a little more understated with an embroidered hibiscus on it, but is very well made (lifetime warranty). She’d ditch it in a minute to get that fairy glitter though, which can be expected because she’s six, and girls of that age tend to be a little short sighted.

Unfortunately, according to Laura Session Stepp’s Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, high school and college girls are making the same kind of swap with much more serious consequences. They are falling for the illusion of control and unattachment, but they are getting poor quality relationships, exploitation and in the worst cases, disease and abuse.

I really appreciated Stepp’s compassion for her subjects. The purpose of her book was twofold: to encourage girls to apply serious thought to their part in a culture in which oral sex is as casual as a handshake, (but expression of emotion is grounds for ridicule) and to admonish adults to have open dialogue with these girls about their relationships and sexuality.

The author also urges those who participate in these activities to take a long range view of their actions. She talks about her experience facilitating classroom discussions where kids freely talk about their participation in hookups, but are completely dumbstruck when asked how to transition from these activities to the long term relationships which are their ultimate goals.

She shares excerpts from her conversations with dozens of girls from widely varied ethnic groups and economic backgrounds, with only a few opting out of hooking-up, a behavior which is purposefully referred to in vague terms so that people aren’t really giving serious thought as to what they are doing.

One particularly sad episode of the book was when a college girl, Jamie (the author changed all of the subjects’ names) was “hooking up” with a fraternity boy. They only went out to clubs occasionally with the arrangement that he could dance with as many girls as he wanted, but did not go anywhere else, and though they shared a bed nightly, the boy never saw fit to give her a ride home, instead allowing her to catch the bus across campus.

Stepp also allows a peak at different factors that explain the state of dating, or rather non-dating among these youth. While the extent to which young people keep in touch (phones, texting, internet) and increased sex in the media have some effect upon young people, the strongest impressions were left upon them by their parents, which is reassuring and daunting. It leaves me wishing that Little A’s biggest dilemma at school could remain learning the value of her simple backpack of the more appealing fairy backpack. Sigh.


The Pursuit of Happyness/Chris Gardner

I really looked forward to reading this book, with all of the buzz surrounding the movie and the story behind it. The book gives an overview of Chris Gardner’s life, from his childhood in Milwaukee with an abusive (to put it mildly) stepfather to his life on the streets in the Bay Area with his young son to the foundation of his successful company.
I was really surprised by the candid (and explicit) language with which the tale was told. I was somewhat disappointed to read the circumstances of the failure of his marriage. Strike that. I was hot. I had to give the writer (and the ghostwriter) credit for disclosing a group of events that was not even complimentary. It ruined the story for me, though. It really did.
I was so excited to find out how he became the successful stockbroker, I skipped the first few chapters and came back to read them later. If I had read them first, I would not have completed the book, no matter how much I paid for it. I guess it is because this man’s character is so highly praised. I know he’s not perfect, but to read the kind of things that went on during his marriage, I just couldn’t respect it.

The Covenant with Black America/Tavis Smiley

I’ve heard a lot of things about Tavis Smiley. Some has been good, and the other stuff, well, notsomuch. I thought I’d take a look at The Covenant with Black America, which has been a New York Times bestseller and received other types of acclaim.
I’ve seen Tavis Smiley’s annual programs on C-SPAN, well as long as they have been on C-SPAN. At times they can be thought provoking and sometimes a bit too dramatic for my tastes, so I didn’t really have a major opinion on Tavis Smiley. I thought that he asked questions that needed to be asked of and about black America.
This book addresses several covenants, or rights that all Americans, and black Americans in particular should have. They include the right to health care and well being, establishing a system of public education in which all children achieve at high levels and reach their full potential, correcting the system of unequal justice, ensuring broad access to affordable neighborhoods that connect to opportunity, claiming our democracy, strengthening our rural roots, accessing jobs, wealth and economic prosperity, assuring racial justice for all and closing the racial digital divide.
I think that the purpose behind the covenant is noble, but can be short sighted in places. In its effort to address voting issues, not once is the possibility of absentee ballots proposed. Why is that? They are available in virtually every jurisdiction and mailing a vote with some bills is much more convenient than waiting for polls to open. If someone should decide to spread news that polls are closed or that the election will take place on another day (the kind of thing that mysteriously happens in large African American communities during the presidential election), absentee ballots are NOT affected. Yet this possibility is not even explored in the chapter, claiming our democracy.
A lot of people are not informed of the extent of the injustices that still exist in our country. I think this book is an excellent starting point towards statistics that shape our nation, but I think that other reading is necessary for those interested in a course of political activism.