An incident in literary history that I have previously covered for this series was when, about 40 years ago, an essay by Chinua Achebe was published that changed the way literary scholars talked about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the essay, Achebe leveled claims of blatant, overarching, and thorough racism in Conrad’s time-tested classic about imperialism in Africa.
The ensuing devaluation of Conrad’s novella was not permanent, however, and Heart of Darkness is once again at the forefront of most higher-level high-school and lower-division university curricula. But the conversations about it have changed, and now its racism is discussed alongside the complexity of its visual imagery. Indeed, in high schools across America Heart of Darkness is taught in the same classrooms as Achebe’s own novel, Things Fall Apart, with its African perspective on imperialism.
The recent popular success of Rebecca Skloot’s work of creative nonfiction, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, may be seen as a further incident in the progressive recontextualization of historical objects and ideas; in Skloot’s case, the historical object is one of immense scientific importance: the HeLa cell. Just like Conrad’s novella, the importance of the HeLa cell is obviously not diminished by the exploitation in its history, but that exploitation has become an integral part of telling that history.
Skloot tells the tale of how Henrietta Lacks became HeLa, and how Lacks and her family went both unacknowledged and uncompensated for her contribution to the medical community. Skloot adopts a neutral tone throughout her book and presents the facts of the cases and lives involved evenly, and, in doing so apolitically, manages to expose the inextricable story of racial segregation operating above and within scientific progress in the twentieth century without sacrificing journalistic integrity.
Through this stylistic method, the discourse at hand becomes an academic study of the repercussions of American segregation—and of the racism still inherent in society and the scientific community—reflective of the state of modern discussions of race.
African American Communities and Early 20th Century Medicine:
In general, Rebecca Skloot is forthcoming with details that paint a very clear picture of the lives and exploitations resulting from racial segregation. At the outset of the book, the reader is granted a vision of life in Clover, a poor black farming community in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Everything, from the involvement of the entire family in the work to the poverty to the exploitative and dangerous labor conditions in the mill during World War II, is documented (18-26).
The book starts here, prefaced only by a statement of intent and explanation of the language being used. By utilizing Henrietta’s childhood as the account’s exposition, racial segregation and its effects on individuals becomes not just the subject matter of the book, but the context of its occurrences. And the treatment of black people in the healthcare system becomes the direct link from that world of poverty to the field of cell culture.
One of the earliest mentions of that treatment, after introducing the work Hopkins medical facility does, is as follows: “This was the era of Jim Crow—when black people showed up at white-only hospitals, the staff was likely to send them away, even if it meant they might die in the parking lot. Even Hopkins, which did treat black patients, segregated them in colored wards, and had colored-only fountains” (15).
Such practices, along with the underlying denial of white and black people possessing the same humanity (i.e. the quasi-existence of “separate but equal”), led to the appropriation of Henrietta Lacks’ tissue and, perhaps more relevant though not more far-reaching, the ignorance of Henrietta’s family of that appropriation. Yet Rebecca Skloot is careful in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to never present the scientific community as some malicious arbiter of injustice, and instead aims in all things for accuracy.
Facts with Even Portrayal and Fictive Potential:
The honest portrayal of how the scientific community has benefitted from and interacted with racial segregation becomes an important distinction in setting Rebecca Skloot’s work apart from some rhetorical or purely emotional condemnation of said community. Both doctors who attempted to reduce malpractice, such as Richard Wesley TeLinde, and those whose politics belied the ubiquity or their work, such as Alexis Carrel, are treated with the same journalistic lack of affectation (29, 58-62).
Skloot’s work operates on a level at once conscious of scientific, racist, and egalitarian motives; she presents all people in her book as part of this one grand narrative of humanity, each a character as in a novel, and so susceptible to moral and critical judgments by the reader, and a human being, and so representative of a faction of reality.
Here is revealed one potentially regrettable aspect of Skloot’s piece: by writing it as creative nonfiction, readers are tempted to place allegorical significance on the principal characters, and in doing so to perpetuate a dichotomy of educated white persons, such as Rebecca and many of the scientists depicted, and poor black persons, such as the Lacks family and the communities of Clover and Lackstown.
Yet even in light of this potential issue, Skloot is doing valid and progressive work. After all, she is careful to bookend the work with statements and quotations affirming the humanity and reality of the cases depicted. Further, the scientific community is, as stated above, not portrayed as consistent or homogeneous, not even morally. This is clear in the move toward requiring informed consent, the debates on ethics in tissue culture, and the depictions of the medical community reprimanding one of its own for unethical patient treatments, as in the case of Bertil Björklund (132-133). (Side note: while not covered in this article, the notion that Skloot may herself be in an exploitative position relative to the Lacks family is discussed a couple of times in my article on Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors.)
So, there is a persistent effort by Rebecca Skloot to present each seeming faction as an amalgam of individuals. But this fairness is not the last word of the book on the subject of where discussions should be heading.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book.
Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks:
Finally, it is the interactions and relationship development between two individuals, Skloot herself and Deborah Lacks (Henrietta Lacks’ daughter), which most resembles a novel in form, yet which most affirms the state of modern discourses on cultural productions concerning race. Deborah’s relationship with the scientific community is multifarious and changes at many times during the work.
One thing, however, which remains consistent about her interaction with medical and scientific professionals, is her desire to know more about her mother (52-53,252-253, 288). This deep desire to know more about her parent carries with it a sort of universal significance; and so its particulars—as well as its basis in racial segregation—pervade her life and flavor every conversation between Skloot and her.
Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks form a clear, actual bond over the figure of Henrietta. And the main part of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ends not with today’s social context contrasting that of Clover with which the book began, nor with commentary on the state of scientific ethics (although that info can be found in the afterword), but with the death of an individual who sought information about her eponymous mother (308).
Here Skloot is more affected in language and presentation than in the rest of the work, and is so (in part) because her character of herself, the narrator, must recount its own emotional response to Deborah’s loss. And she does so by agreeing with Deborah’s family that it was not a tragedy, in fact, because it allowed Deborah to be reunited with Henrietta as she had always desired.
Pairing this human friendship with the discourses which precede it serves to make a powerful claim that humanity and individuals are what are important and valuable, in and out of the context of academia and science, and regardless of race.
Rebecca Skloot marries storytelling with journalism to create a work showcasing progressive humanity, ironically, by showcasing how diametrically opposed to it aspects of society have been and, in some cases—such as that of the white members of the Lacks family—still are.
Skloot’s evenness and apolitical style in approaching the myriad subjects at play in the nonfiction work stand apart from the sort of political motivation one sees in Achebe’s essay when, having made his point that the racism is there and must be acknowledged, he alleges that society must then deny the status of Heart of Darkness as great art. How the discussion of art contends with problematic elements thereof is what has changed.
Rebecca Skloot’s work, then, is akin to both Chinua Achebe’s progressive criticism of Conrad (without the aggressive reprimands of the past) and what Achebe accomplished in writing Things Fall Apart; that is, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is both a look at the issues of the past with an academic eye and a new work toward building a more wholly progressive canon. New art and studies of this kind will foster a more honest view of the past and facilitate a future built on such honest, earnest foundations.