The Immortal Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Henrietta Lacks


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Deborah and I came from very different cultures: I grew up white and agnostic

in the Pacific Northwest, my roots half New York Jew and half Midwestern Protestant;

Deborah was a deeply religious black Christian from the South.

I tended to leave the room when religion came up . . .



The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot


A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman’s Immortal Legacy

 and the Medical Scandal It Caused

By Michael Gold

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Faith, Cancer, Death, Racism, Science, and Ethics

A Research Sampling by Rudolph Lewis


Henrietta Lacks (August 18, 1920 – October 4, 1951)  was an African–American woman who was the unwitting donor of cells from her cancerous tumor, which were cultured by George Otto Gey to create an immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line.

Henrietta Lacks, née Loretta Pleasant, was born on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia to Eliza (1886–1924) and John Randall Pleasant I (1881–1969) Her family is uncertain how her name changed from Loretta to Henrietta; with Hennie as a nickname. Eliza died giving birth to her tenth child in 1924. Sometime after his wife’s death, John Pleasant took the children back to where their maternal relatives lived, and they were raised there by their mother’s relatives. Henrietta ended up with her grandfather in Clover, Virginia.[1] John worked as a brakeman on the railroad.

Henrietta Pleasant married her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks (1915–2002), in Halifax County, Virginia. David had already been living with Henrietta’s grandfather when she had moved there at age 4. Their marriage in 1941, after their first two children were born, surprised many in the family as they had been raised like brother and sister.[1] After convincing David to go north to search for work, Henrietta followed in 1943, bringing their children with her. David found work at the Sparrow’s Point shipyards and found a house for them on New Pittsburgh Avenue in Turners Station, now a part of Dundalk, Baltimore County, Maryland. This community was one of the largest and one of the youngest of the approximately forty historically African American communities in Baltimore County.

The couple had five children together: Lawrence (b. 1935), Elsie (b. 1939), David “Sonny” Jr. (b. 1947), Deborah (b. 1949), and Joseph (b. 1950, changed name to Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman). Joseph Lacks, Henrietta’s last child, was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital in November 1950, just four and a half months before Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer. Elsie was described by the family as “different”, “deaf and dumb” and eventually died in the Crownsville State Hospital in 1955. Years later the family learned Elsie had been abused there and may have had holes drilled in her head during experiments. Elsie had been placed there about 1950, the same timeframe Henrietta discovered she had lumps and unusual bleeding. . . .

In her 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot documents the histories of both the HeLa cell line and the Lacks family. Henrietta’s husband, David Lacks, was told little following her death. Suspicions fueled by racial issues prevalent in the South were compounded by issues of class and education. For their part, members of the Lacks family were kept in the dark about the existence of the tissue line, and when its existence was revealed, family members were confused about how Henrietta’s cells could have been taken without consent and how they could still be alive 50 years after her death.—Wikipedia

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A Conspiracy of Cells

One Woman’s Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal It Caused

By Michael Gold

170 pp. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986


HeLa’ Legacy (June 15, 1986)—A Review by Harold M. Smeck, Jr.—Mr. Nelson-Rees had the embarrassing task of telling Soviet scientists that the cells in which their viruses were growing were not even derived from Russian cancer patients. The cells actually originated from Henrietta Lacks, who died in Baltimore in 1951 of a raging malignancy of the cervix.

Cancer cells taken from her body before her death have never stopped growing and are multiplying en masse today in laboratories all over the world. They are known to scientists as HeLa cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names. They have proved a real boon to researchers but also a bane because they grow so luxuriantly that they usurp other cell cultures, to which they have often been introduced accidentally by even the most minor deviations from careful technique.

That was how they got into the Soviet cultures and into many of the cell types most widely used in research in the United States. HeLa cells ruined expensive scientific studies because many research teams that thought they were studying different tissue types from many individuals were all unknowingly working with the wildfire growths derived from Mrs. Lacks’s cancer.

Mr. Nelson-Rees became the scientific world’s persistent watchdog in finding the cases in which other cell cultures were overgrown and replaced by HeLa cells. The book shows him as a perfectionist,probably not too likable under the best of circumstances. Over the years his ”hit lists” of contaminated cell types earned him acrimony from many scientists who didn’t believe him at first but later had to watch years of their own painstaking research go down the drain because they had not really known what cells they were using. Many cell cultures, some of them ostensibly pure ”reference strains” from national repositories, have been unmasked as HeLa cells growing under other labels. . . .

Mr. Nelson-Rees quit his research in 1981 in the face of continuing antagonism from other scientists and budget cuts by the National Cancer Institute. His watchdog role against invasions by the HeLa cells has ended. Mr. Gold’s thesis is that today this work is being neglected, endangering the whole enterprise of biomedical research.—NYTimes

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

384 pp. Crown 2010


Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal’ Cells—Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s new book investigates how a poor black tobacco farmer had a groundbreaking impact on modern medicine—A Review by Sarah Zielinski—, January 22, 2010—In 1951, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, created the first immortal human cell line with a tissue sample taken from a young black woman with cervical cancer. Those cells, called HeLa cells, quickly became invaluable to medical research—though their donor remained a mystery for decades. In her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, journalist Rebecca Skloot tracks down the story of the source of the amazing HeLa cells, Henrietta Lacks, and documents the cell line’s impact on both modern medicine and the Lacks family. . . [Henrietta] was a black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who got cervical cancer when she was 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. No one knows why, but her cells never died. . . .

Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.—Smithsonian

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Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five in Baltimore, a poor African American migrant from the tobacco farms of Virginia, who died from a cruelly aggressive cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom then, turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: human cells that could survive—even thrive—in the lab. Known as HeLa cells, their stunning potency gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the cure for polio. Meanwhile, Henrietta’s family continued to live in poverty and frequently poor health, and their discovery decades later of her unknowing contribution—and her cells’ strange survival—left them full of pride, anger, and suspicion.

For a decade, [Rebecca] Skloot doggedly but compassionately gathered the threads of these stories, slowly gaining the trust of the family while helping them learn the truth about Henrietta, and with their aid she tells a rich and haunting story that asks the questions, Who owns our bodies? And who carries our memories?—Tom Nissley, Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010

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[Rebecca] Skloot’s portraits of Deborah [Lacks], her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people.—Starred Review Publishers Weekly

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As Deborah Lacks and Skloot search for answers, we’re bounced effortlessly from the tiny tobacco-farming Virginia hamlet of Henrietta’s childhood to modern-day Baltimore, where Henrietta’s family remains. Along the way, a series of unforgettable juxtapositions: cell culturing bumps into faith healings, cutting edge medicine collides with the dark truth that Henrietta’s family can’t afford the health insurance to care for diseases their mother’s cells have helped to cure.Rebecca Skloot tells the story with great sensitivity, urgency and, in the end, damn fine writing. I highly recommend this book.—Jad Abumrad

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A Lasting Gift to Medicine That Wasn’t Really a Gift—A Review by Denise Grady—February 1, 2010—Fifty years after Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in the “colored” ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, her daughter finally got a chance to see the legacy she had unknowingly left to science. A researcher in a lab at Hopkins swung open a freezer door and showed the daughter, Deborah Lacks-Pullum, thousands of vials, each holding millions of cells descended from a bit of tissue that doctors had snipped from her mother’s cervix.

Ms. Lacks-Pullum gasped. “Oh God,” she said. “I can’t believe all that’s my mother.” When the researcher handed her one of the frozen vials, Ms. Lacks-Pullum instinctively said, “She’s cold,” and blew on the tube to warm it. “You’re famous,” she whispered to the cells. Minutes later, peering through a microscope, she pronounced them beautiful. But when she asked the researcher which were her mother’s normal cells and which the cancer cells, his answer revealed that her precious relic was not quite what it seemed. The cells, he replied, were “all just cancer.”

The vignette comes from a gripping new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown Publishers), by the journalist Rebecca Skloot. The story of Mrs. Lacks and her cells, and the author’s own adventures with Mrs. Lacks’s grown children (one fries her a pork chop, and another slams her against a wall) is by turns heartbreaking, funny and unsettling. The book raises troubling questions about the way Mrs. Lacks and her family were treated by researchers and about whether patients should control or have financial claims on tissue removed from their bodies.—NYTimes

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Cancer cells killed Henrietta Lacks—then made her immortal—A Review by Denise Watson Batts—The Virginian-Pilot—May 10, 2010—Sonny Lacks is known for his smile. Wide and welcoming, it’s a feature that others tell him he shares with his mother.He wishes he knew that for himself, but he was only 4 when she died. On a recent Monday afternoon, Sonny and his older brother, Lawrence, sat at a dining room table in Baltimore and examined sketches of what will be their mother’s tombstone. They’ve never had enough money for one. Finally, after all these years, a gift will allow their mother to be remembered as they want her to be.

Lawrence looked at the images but said little. He doesn’t like talking about the mother he lost when he was 16. “Don’t know why; I never could,” he said, taking off his glasses and rubbing his moist eyes. “I just can’t.” The course of their lives changed in 1951 when their mother visited what was then Johns Hopkins Hospital, just 20 minutes down the road from where her boys now live. It was there that doctors discovered her strange illness and removed mysterious cells from her body.

The sons are one legacy of Henrietta Lacks—a poor woman from the tobacco fields of south-central Virginia. The other is this: Her cells are still multiplying ferociously nearly six decades after her death. They have led to medical miracles such as the vaccine for polio and have produced millions of dollars in revenue for others. The family’s great loss has become the world’s great gain.

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on Aug. 1, 1920, in Roanoke. The boys aren’t sure how she became Henrietta, which was shortened to Hennie after her mother’s death when the girl was 4. Hennie and her nine siblings were sent to live with aunts, uncles and cousins in the tiny farming town of Clover, about four hours west of Norfolk. Hennie landed with her grandfather, who also was raising one of her first cousins, David. They lived in what was called the “home-house,” a two-story cabin built of hand-hewn logs and pegs that once was the slave quarters of their ancestors. . . .

Cousin Sadie Grinnan, now Sadie Sturdivant, 81, lives in Nathalie, near Clover, and is bothered by it, too. “These other people,” she said, “are making billions and billions.” What was hardest for Hennie’s children to deal with was that so many people knew so much about their mother, while they knew so little. “That’s what hurts,” Sonny said. Now, he’s looking for closure. It began in earnest with the release earlier this year of Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

           photo: Henrietta and David Lacks, ca. 1945

The book recounts the family’s struggle, the science and the ethical implications surrounding the use of the cells. Sonny’s sister Deborah had worked closely with the author but died last May from heart disease. Deborah, who was 59, went to her grave wanting to honor her mother. Sonny now is determined to fulfill her wish.           

The family is working with an attorney to get a handle on all things Henrietta. For example, Sonny recently heard that a group in New York is holding a Henrietta Lacks race, and he wondered how people could do that without the family’s permission. He and his brothers don’t have the time or know-how to answer those kinds of questions.

Lawrence, now 75, rehabilitates houses for a living. Sonny, 62, is a truck driver who often picks up his grandkids in the afternoons. He helps out his younger brother, Joe, who changed his name to Zakariyya Abdul Rahman and goes by Abdul. At 59, Abdul has problems with his legs and can’t get around easily. The family has pooled its money to buy headstones for their father, who died in 2002 and is buried in Baltimore, and for Elsie, whose body was relocated to a grave near her mother’s in Clover.—HamptonRoads

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A Woman’s Undying Gift to Science—A Review by Dwight Garner—February 2, 2010—I put down Rebecca Skloot’s first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, more than once. Ten times, probably. . . . was holding one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.

A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of Erin Brockovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Andromeda Strain. More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.

The woman who provides this book its title, Henrietta Lacks, was a poor and largely illiterate Virginia tobacco farmer, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves. Born in 1920, she died from an aggressive cervical cancer at 31, leaving behind five children. No obituaries of Mrs. Lacks appeared in newspapers. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

To scientists, however, Henrietta Lacks almost immediately became known simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), from the first two letters of her first and last names. Cells from Mrs. Lacks’s cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming “immortal” and changing the face of modern medicine. There are, Ms. Skloot writes, “trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.” Laid end to end, the world’s HeLa cells would today wrap around the earth three times. . . .

Ms. Skloot is a memorable character herself. She never intrudes on the narrative, but she takes us along with her on her reporting, as she moves around the country in her battered, muffler-free black Honda. Her most complicated job is to get Mrs. Lacks’s family, who are tired of white people trying to pry information from them, to speak with her. She does eventually win them over. And Mrs. Lacks’s daughter Deborah is dead-on when she says to Ms. Skloot: “Get ready, girl. You got no idea what you gettin’ yourself into.”

Ms. Skloot writes with particular sensitivity and grace about the history of race and medicine in America. Black oral history, she points out, is full of stories about “night doctors,” men who could pluck black patients off the streets to experiment on their bodies. There was some truth behind those tales. . . .

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  is also, from first page to last, a meditation on medical ethics—on the notion of informed consent, and on the issue of who owns human cells. When they’re in your body, it’s obvious — they’re yours. But once they’ve been removed? All bets are clearly off.

This is the place in a review where critics tend to wedge in the sentence that says, in so many words, “This isn’t a perfect book.” And The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks surely isn’t. But there isn’t much about it I’d want to change. It has brains and pacing and nerve and heart, and it is uncommonly endearing. You might put it down only to wipe off the sweat.NYTtimes

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Eternal Life—A Review by Lisa Margonelli—February 5, 2010—From the very beginning there was something uncanny about the cancer cells on Henrietta Lacks’s cervix. Even before killing Lacks herself in 1951, they took on a life of their own. Removed during a biopsy and cultured without her permission, the HeLa cells (named from the first two letters of her first and last names) reproduced boisterously in a lab at Johns Hopkins—the first human cells ever to do so. HeLa became an instant biological celebrity, traveling to research labs all over the world. Meanwhile Lacks, a vivacious 31-year-old African-American who had once been a tobacco farmer, tended her five children and endured scarring radiation treatments in the hospital’s “colored” ward.

After Henrietta Lacks’s death, HeLa went viral, so to speak, becoming the godmother of virology and then biotech, benefiting practically anyone who’s ever taken a pill stronger than aspirin. Scientists have grown some 50 million metric tons of her cells, and you can get some for yourself simply by calling an 800 number. HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers.

HeLa is so outrageously robust that if one cell lands in a petri dish, it proceeds to take over. And so, like any good celebrity, HeLa had a scandal: In 1966 it became clear that HeLa had contaminated hundreds of cell lines, destroying research as far away as Russia. . . .

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot introduces us to the “real live woman,” the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years. Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace. She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about “the facts.” ­Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.

Skloot didn’t know what she was getting into when she began researching the book as a graduate student in 1999. The first time she called Lacks’s widower, then living in Baltimore, the person who answered the phone simply heard her voice and yelled, “Get Pop, lady’s on the phone about his wife cells.” Over the years it took Skloot to gain the family’s trust, she came to understand that the only time white people ever called the house was when they wanted something to do with the HeLa cells. Some of the family feel they’ve been ripped off, cheated by either Johns Hopkins (though the hospital never sold the cells) or the entire medical establishment, which has made enormous profits from the cells. . . .

But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is much more than a portrait of the Lacks family. It is also a critique of science that insists on ignoring the messy human provenance of its materials. “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from,” a researcher named Robert Stevenson tells Skloot in one of the many ethical discussions seeded throughout the book.

The ethical issues implicated in the HeLa story are many and tangled. Since 1951, science has progressed much faster than our ability to figure out what is right and wrong about tissue culture. In the 1980s a doctor who had removed the cancer-ridden spleen of a man named John Moore patented some of the cells to create a cell line then valued at more than $3 billion, without Moore’s knowledge. Moore sued, and on appeal the court ruled that patients had the right to control their tissues, but soon that was struck down by the California Supreme Court, which said that tissue removed from the body had been abandoned as medical waste.

The cell line created by the doctor had been “transformed” via his “inventive effort,” and to say otherwise would “destroy the economic incentive to conduct important medical research.” The court said that doctors should disclose their financial interests and called on legislators to increase patient protections and regulation, but this has hardly hindered the growth of the field. In 1999 the RAND Corporation estimated that American labs alone held more than 307 million tissue samples from some 178 million people. Not only is the question of payment for profitable tissues unresolved, Skloot notes, but it’s still not necessary to obtain consent to store cells and tissue taken in diagnostic procedures and then use the samples for research.—NYTimes

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Prologue: The Woman in the Photograph—Excerpts—The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—By Rebecca Skloot—There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”

No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells—her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died. Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.

I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever—bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. .

I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she—like most of us—would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body. . .

When I got my first computer in the mid-nineties and started using the Internet, I searched for information about her, but found only confused snippets: most sites said her name was Helen Lane; some said she died in the thirties; others said the forties, fifties, or even sixties. Some said ovarian cancer killed her, others said breast or cervical cancer.

Eventually I tracked down a few magazine articles about her from the seventies. Ebony quoted Henrietta’s husband saying, “All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them.” Jet said the family was angry—angry that Henrietta’s cells were being sold for twenty-five dollars a vial, and angry that articles had been published about the cells without their knowledge. It said, “Pounding in the back of their heads was a gnawing feeling that science and the press had taken advantage of them.”

The articles all ran photos of Henrietta’s family: her oldest son sitting at his dining room table in Baltimore, looking at a genetics textbook. Her middle son in military uniform, smiling and holding a baby. But one picture stood out more than any other: in it, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, is surrounded by family, everyone smiling, arms around each other, eyes bright and excited. Except Deborah. She stands in the foreground looking alone, almost as if someone pasted her into the photo after the fact. She’s twenty-six years old and beautiful, with short brown hair and catlike eyes. But those eyes glare at the camera, hard and serious. The caption said the family had found out just a few months earlier that Henrietta’s cells were still alive, yet at that point she’d been dead for twenty-five years.

All of the stories mentioned that scientists had begun doing research on Henrietta’s children, but the Lackses didn’t seem to know what that research was for. They said they were being tested to see if they had the cancer that killed Henrietta, but according to the reporters, scientists were studying the Lacks family to learn more about Henrietta’s cells. The stories quoted her son Lawrence, who wanted to know if the immortality of his mother’s cells meant that he might live forever too. But one member of the family remained voiceless: Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.

As I worked my way through graduate school studying writing, I became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story. At one point I even called directory assistance in Baltimore looking for Henrietta’s husband, David Lacks, but he wasn’t listed. I had the idea that I’d write a book that was a biography of both the cells and the woman they came from—someone’s daughter, wife, and mother.

I couldn’t have imagined it then, but that phone call would mark the beginning of a decadelong adventure through scientific laboratories, hospitals, and mental institutions, with a cast of characters that would include Nobel laureates, grocery store clerks, convicted felons, and a professional con artist. . . .

Deborah and I came from very different cultures: I grew up white and agnostic in the Pacific Northwest, my roots half New York Jew and half Midwestern Protestant; Deborah was a deeply religious black Christian from the South. I tended to leave the room when religion came up in conversation because it made me uncomfortable; Deborah’s family tended toward preaching, faith healings, and sometimes voodoo. She grew up in a black neighborhood that was one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country; I grew up in a safe, quiet middle-class neighborhood in a predominantly white city and went to high school with a total of two black students. I was a science journalist who referred to all things supernatural as “woo-woo stuff”; Deborah believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its paths. Including me.

“How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane?” Deborah would say. “She was trying to get your attention.” This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing this book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.

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.—NYTimes

Rebecca Skloot is a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many other publications. She specializes in narrative science writing and has explored a wide range of topics, including goldfish surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, food politics, and packs of wild dogs in Manhattan. She is the guest editor of The Best American Science Writing 2011, a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine, and has worked as a correspondent for WNYC’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova Science NOW. Her writing has been widely anthologized — read a selection on the stories page of this site.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, her debut book, took more than a decade to research and write, and instantly became a New York Times best-seller. She has been featured on numerous television shows, including CBS Sunday Morning, The Colbert Report, Fox Business News, and others.  Her book was named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick for Spring 2010, and received widespread critical acclaim, with reviews appearing in The New Yorker, Washington Post, Science, Entertainment Weekly, People, and many others. . . . Skloot served for eight years on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle, where she was a vice president and judge for their yearly book awards. She has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She financed her degrees by working in emergency rooms, neurology labs, veterinary morgues and martini bars.

She has taught in the creative writing programs at the University of Memphis and the University of Pittsburgh; she’s also taught science journalism in NYU’s graduate Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. . . .. Skloot lives in Memphis. She regularly abandons city life to write in the hills of West Virginia, where she tends to find stray animals and bring them home.—Rebecca Skloot Bio

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Video and Film

 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Book Tour Part 1

Author Rebecca Skloot ( hit the road on January 29, 2010 for The Immortal Book Tour, a four-month self-organized grassroots tour for her newly published New York Times bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about the immortal HeLa cells: Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same. Here, a video trailer with footage and photos from Part I of The Immortal Tour, featuring footage of Henrietta Lacks‘s family discussing the book, Henrietta, and HeLa.

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Charlene Gilbert. Colored Bodies: Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells—An experimental documentary on bioethics explored through the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five who made medical history in1951 when researchers discovered the first immortal cell line in her body.—Media Artists

posted 28 July 2010

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The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets

By Barbara G. Walker

This fascinating, scholarly hodgepodge spotlights the feminist underpinnings of myth, religion, and culture. Before being lionized as zaftig Norse angels who guided strong warriors to Valhalla, Valkyries may have offered rebirth through cannibalization. “Little Red Riding Hood” was based on Diana, goddess of the hunt. Marriage was once considered a sin, not a sacred union: St. Bernard once proclaimed “it was easier for a man to bring the dead back to life than to live with a woman without endangering his soul.” A few of the other topics expounded upon are the Milky Way, Cinderella, the moon, and males giving birth. While some of the references put a cranky feminist spin on words that might in context have different meaning—St. Paul’s oft-quoted “better to marry than to burn,” for example—much in this vast tome will dazzle dabblers and intellectuals alike.— Review

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Anarcha’s Story

By Alexandria C. Lynch, MS III

Quickly, he forces her to spread her legs so that he can exam her damaged

vagina. She is unable to say anything as he pokes and prods in her most

private areas. She lies there in that backyard hospital and waits while

he completes his initial examination.

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How the GOP Became the White Man’s Party  /  The Southern Strategy Comes of Age

Steele Admits “Southern Strategy” / Rachel Maddow—Steele admits GOP southern strategy

The Southern Strategy /  Nixon’s Southern Strategy

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Endgame AIDS in Black America

HIV Continues Its Grim Toll on Blacks in the U.S.—‘Endgame: AIDS in Black America’ on PBS—9 July 2012—Today in America, 152 people will become infected with H.I.V.,” a speaker is telling a World AIDS Day gathering as the program opens. “Half of them will be black. Today in America, two-thirds of the new H.I.V. cases among women will be black. Today in America, 70 percent of the new H.I.V. cases among youth will be black.”

From there the program, directed by Renata Simone, embarks on a history lesson, tracing how AIDS was almost immediately typecast as a disease of gay white men, even though some of the earliest cases were in black men. That led to an indifference among blacks at the start of the epidemic, and soon along came the drug nightmare of the 1990s, with sex being traded for a fix, rampant needle sharing and resistance to needle-exchange programs that sought to do something about the problem. Endemic poverty in black America of course exacerbated everything about the AIDS crisis.

Black leaders acknowledge that they failed to take the kind of vocal role in the early years that they had been known for in civil rights battles and other struggles. “I didn’t do what I could have done and should have done,” Julian Bond, the civil rights activist and a former chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., says bluntly.—nytimes

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation

on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

By Harriet A. Washington


Medical Apartheid is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. Starting with the earliest encounters between black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, it details the ways both slaves and freedmen were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some black populations. It reveals how blacks have historically been prey to grave-robbing as well as unauthorized autopsies and dissections. . . . The product of years of prodigious research into medical journals and experimental reports long undisturbed, Medical Apartheid reveals the hidden underbelly of scientific research and makes possible, for the first time, an understanding of the roots of the African American health deficit.—Random House / Kam Williams review


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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.

She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion


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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man’s turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners’ plans to give him a “necktie party” (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by “the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own home town.” Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson’s magnificent, extensively researched study of the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an “uncertain existence” in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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Representations of Black Feminist Politics

By Joy James

James rejects the liberalism of conventional black feminism for a radical agenda, which, in the tradition of black feminists Ella Baker and Ida B. Wells, targets capitalism and the state as perpetuators of race, class, and gender oppression. Their legacy of radicalism and activism is juxtaposed to the black feminist praxis and thought of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown. This book successfully demonstrates that black feminism is authentically rooted in the black community. Especially enlightening is James’s discussion on “distinctions between black men championing black females as patriarchal protectors and black men championing feminism to challenge sexism.” An interdisciplinary and well-analyzed representation of radical black women fighting for rights and visibility. Recommended for women’s studies, African American studies, or political collections.—Library Journal

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 2 March 2012




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