Many stories behind the history of the blacks and their contribution to modern developments have never been told. The slave trade period was one of the worst moments of history and especially to the black generation. Apart from the psychological and physical they were made to face, being denied basic needs of life and being looked down, there was still more to their predicament that has remained underground. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book that reveals to us how the black race was looked down on and taken advantage of when in the real sense, the contribution they made to the current economic and scientific growth is commendable. The fact that they were citizens without any right in a land they only knew off, the whites recognized the fact that they were an important asset that would ultimately lead to scientific and technological developments (Washingt 43). This is a nostalgic story that brings mixed reactions to the reader who is held between sympathising with the family for what happened to them and recognizing how much their fate imparted the medical field.
The story of Henrietta is just one of the many examples of the evils that were done to the blacks by the whites. They took advantage of the fact that they were illiterate and that they could not obtain the basic needs they required. They had power over them and could hence toss them to and fro and take cells from their bodies without their consent. It is clear that when it came to racism against the blacks, the whites were not human enough to even indirectly compensate them for the loss they caused to them. Knowing that even if a black person knew a certain evil had been done against them, there was nothing they could do about it as they were used to constant harassment, the medical fraternity should have at least shown some empathy by helping the family. This should have been done indirectly probably by granting them some aid or just making their lives better.
It is sad that while the medical fraternity was laughing all the way to the bank and celebrating the victory they had obtained, they did not recognize the root source of their success story. They most probably never cared to follow up on how the family was doing and most probably apologetically share what they did to them and subsequently pledge to support them. Looking at the situation of the family at the moment, the poverty that surrounded them, racism and all the ridicule that came with slavery, the medical fraternity should have used such a discovery to bring change not only to the family but also to the community (Gold 162). I am quite sure that with the impoverished living conditions that the blacks were living in, it would not be difficult to get a family member to volunteer their body cells for an experiment with a promise to support the rest of the family.
Analysing the story and the ‘eureka’ moment celebrated by the scientist, i am trying to imagine how many more experiments were done on body cells obtained from other blacks. Since the blacks were considered less human, it would be easy for any scientist who wished to carry out an experiment to take advantage of a black patient. This must have been an easy trap for them considering the fact that it was no loss if a black person died because of negligence. This was done not considering the fate of the family members who depended on him or her for support (Skloot 65). This was indeed an inhuman act that has since been transformed into a work of literature.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks also tells of the humanity that still exists in the society amidst such insensitive actions. The author of the book must have been very keen and patient to walk with the family just to learn of their predicament and help them through the healing process. Healing of a wound begins when the real cause of the industry is determined and the right dosage offered. Rebecca must have been touched by the fact that cells of a black woman have contributed much to the growth of the industry yet the involved family has not been credited for the same. It takes courage for a person to follow up on the story, unveil the mystery and walk with the family through the healing process. This is a woman who wanted to change the outlook of the medical fraternity and appreciate the main contributors that are never mentioned. Rebecca definitely knew that revealing the story to the family would make feel angrier. This would definitely rekindle the bitter memories of the death of the lady they loved. She however chose to do this so that they not only understand the unfair treatment they received but also how the same has positively imparted on medical history (Mukherjee 82). This would also show them that someone from the medical fraternity cared enough to unveil the mystery and help them through the healing process.
This reveals that Henrietta did not just a die a normal death, but just like martyrs and revolutionaries that were assassinated, she died a sacrificial death that positively impacted the medical field. The family was meant to understand that it was indeed an unfair death but knowing the cells derived from Henrietta still live on through people’s good health should keep their hope alive. This also acts as a revelation to many black families who may have fallen victims to similar treatment to cheer up as they do not know how far their predicament has contributed to current technological developments. Even though blacks are rarely mentioned among the big names who contributed to the making of America, there is a lot behind the scenes that puts them at the top.
The book has changed my perspective towards what we call the inventors and entrepreneurs. Behind such big names that we see, there are numerous insignificant beings who played a bigger role than the real scientists. This keeps me alert to not celebrate the big names but to appreciate the stages that were followed in coming up with the final product and know that someone somewhere has been denied credit. One may also never know how much he or she contributed to what is being celebrated. Such memories may have long gone and passed by but just knowing you were part of the solution is enough to bring the relief. I have also learnt that no matter how long it takes, we should always learn to give credit to whoever deserves it no matter how much pain it is likely to rekindle. Irrespective of whatever position and status one holds in the society, we are all significant and can cause the change that is so much needed.
Gold, Michael A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman's Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal It Caused. New York: SUNY Press, 1986.
Mukherjee, Siddharth. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. London: Fourth Estate, 2011.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010.
Washingt, Harriet. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. California: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.