Last night I was overjoyed to see Google’s doodle of Edmonia Lewis, the first woman of African American and Native American heritage to achieve international recognition as a sculptor. I wrote about her eleven years ago, so I was ecstatic that more people would learn about her. I hope that this also means that more is discovered about her and her groundbreaking body of work.
I don’t even have to complete that phrase for the millions of people who grew up watching Soul Train. Yesterday, Donald Cortez Cornelius, the creator and executive producer of one of the longest running syndicated programs in history (35 seasons) died at the age of 75.
Don Cornelius created one of the first broadcast programs on television that acknowledged African Americans as a unique, viable audience. The show portrayed young blacks as beautiful, hip, vibrant and sophisticated. It also ushered in the beginning of television advertising featuring special products and commercials for a minority market. He expanded the Soul Train brand to include the Soul Train Music Awards and he operated SoLar (Sound of Los Angeles Records). His show created opportunities for countless broadcasters, camera operators, dancers, musicians, singers, and actors of color – and not.
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.
When Wes Moore was reading the newspaper article about his being named a Rhodes Scholar, he caught a glimpse of an article about a young man being sought in connection with an armed robbery that resulted in the death of an off-duty police officer. The young man’s name was also Wes Moore. The Other Wes Moore tells the story of each man’s coming of age and leaves the reader to wonder, like the writer of the book did, how do two people, born in the same place, less than a year apart, end up in two completely different places, different worlds even.
The book delves into the coming of age of the two Weses, the choices they made and the consequences of those choices. Each section begins with a conversation between them in prison, where Wes Moore is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The conversations are good introductions to each part of the stories, and definitely thought provoking.
The book is an excellent piece of journalism. It tells a complete story of both men. One is a story of triumph and the other is a cautionary tale. The fact that they are so similar should make any reader think about the way some things are in our society, especially in the inner cities. The book does not glamorize the fact that Wes Moore is in prison for a violent crime that he most likely committed as it gives a clear indication that a family and community were victimized by his participation in the crime for which he is serving his sentence. I really respect that aspect of the book, because it also told the story of a young man who had many obstacles in his life at the same time.
I think everyone should read the book. It gives so much insight into policies that our elected officials often make without thinking of the consequences, but does not dismiss the importance of making good choices.