The story of Henrietta Lacks is the narrative of black femininity. Lacks mirrors the exposed and dismembered Saartje Baartman in life and death exploitation, embodying the dehumanization and carelessness faced by countless black female bodies in traditional and contemporary settings.
Yet, to some, the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a resounding work of non-fiction that reveals a hidden truth. However, this read proves challenging in the ambivalence it provokes. On one hand, the book paints a portrait all too familiar to the black collective. It validates theories that have blossomed in our minds, homes and communities for centuries, stories commonly labeled “crazed conspiracy theories.” Simultaneously, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks seizes a prevalent story from the black collective and renders it an American secret. The film proved equally as problematic, to the extent that I was unaware if the hot tears that stained my cheeks were out of anger, sadness or hurt. Countless ideas crossed my mind while watching. The first was prompted by Oprah’s presence in the movie, which made me wonder why the film was not on OWN? Surely, if the supposed black-owned network can air Greanleaf, a white created drama starring black people, it can tell a prominent piece of the black female narrative. This question corresponds to the most prominent question on my mind while viewing:
Why are we not telling our own stories?
The easy answer is capitalism but the covert explanation is cowardice. It seems that many feel that the story is better off told by any means necessary than not be told at all. While I understand this logic, it is careless to place our treasures in the hands of those who oppress us–directly or indirectly. Skloot indirectly benefitted from the horrors cast onto the Lacks family, and all blacks, until given the opportunity to directly benefit from their tragedy in authoring this book. Furthermore, Rebecca Skloot is not a hero, she is an intruder-and a thief. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a disgrace to the African art of story telling, a task to which the black collective has always demonstrated mastery. This book takes a story connecting thousands of indigenous Africans and places it in the mouth of a white woman, who took the wheel of a ship to which she has no right to be a passenger. In short, while I appreciated the family input,I despised the white savior role played by Skloot a predictable and insulting role functioning to humanize whites In a story supposedly about black female dehumanization. The results, are of course counterproductive and ultimately surrender to elevating white female portrayal and abandoning black female truth. For these reasons, my expectations were extremely low for the movie.
The film, like the book, focused entirely too much on Skloot. In article “Nina Simone’s face” Tanehesi Coates states the following:
There is something deeply shameful in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.
Shameful indeed. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks film portrays a similar shame. Namely, although her name is in the title, Henrietta Lacks is a supporting character in what is supposed to be her story, her medical injustice a backdrop to Hollywood’s attempt to illustrate the black and white woman as allies in overcoming systemic imbalance.
The dichotomy between Skloot and Deborah Lacks (Henrietta’s youngest daughter) demonstrates that white women solely take interest in the perils of black femininity when there is something in it for them. Deborah Lacks died of a heart attack in her sleep after learning the totality of her mother and sister’s exploitation and demise. The truth undoubtedly traumatized her and affected her in a manner that did not quite translate to Skloot. So even in process, the black female body dies of a broken heart and a shattered reality where the white female body rides high on revere and success made possible by a string of black female sacrifice.
In watching the film, viewers see three generations of Lacks women gone too early, sacrificed in the western revelation of power. Images of a beautiful woman with an even more beautiful smile charred like pernil over blazing flames then scraped in her most intimate area, tear through my eyes, body and soul while watching. Viewers watch as Henrietta’s demise becomes the fate of her daughters, illustrating the horror of cyclical disenfranchisement While oldest daughter Elsie met similar physical mistreatment to her mother, Deborah also faced exploitation and experimentation behind the veil of a friendly white female face. All Lacks women casted an invaluable jewel into the western world much like their enslaved ancestors– a jewel pawned, poked, and prodded solely to profit those of the majority.
Similarly, Lack’s story demonstrates that beneath the polish and prestige of the American university is the hollowed black female body, gutted as a Western sacrifice. Lack’s posthumous dismemberment and objectification substantiates why no black body should aim to attend any of America’s premiere institutions like John Hopkins, a university that has earned revere from between the legs of a prematurely deceased black female body.
These troubling images intensify when viewers see the abusive picture of Lacks’ eldest daughter Elsie. Elsie, a purely beautiful but handicapped child, was a patient at a mental institution that would later be revealed as performing experiments on their patients without consent. The picture of Elsie in her file captures a white hand aggressively holding her tearful face towards the camera. The picture was taken only months before she died at the age of fifteen. This component of the story illustrates that for every systemized black female body, there are at least a dozen more in the fold.
Moments like these are not brilliantly portrayed but resonant simply in fact. The portrayal of the black people in the movie is both degrading and insulting. Every black body given significant camera time appears unstable and overzealously pious. It is true that religion is a central component of blackness, however, these portrayals occur without dignity and portray real people almost comically if not bizarre. These portrayals, caricatured by a white gaze, reveal the persistent issue with black representation not only in Hollywood but in America.
The film and book epitomize the essence of a white savior. This role takes full form in revealing that Skloot’s publisher instructed her to “eliminate the family.” Skloot writes extensively about this in her book and it is of course a prevalent component of the movie. This information surfaces to establish Skloot’s credibility as a journalist and has nothing to do with telling Lacks’ story in its entirety. Alienating blacks from family is a central component to oppression, as it not only dismembers the black collective as a unit, but renders our conflicts as isolated rather than interconnected. If Skloot truly desired to deviate from the conventions of white supremacy, she would have omitted herself entirely from the prose and placed Deborah’s name on the book. She did neither. Skloot does donate SOME of what she earns from the book, movie and speaking engagements to a foundation established in Lack’s honor, but had the Lacks family only allotted some of their story Skloot’s project would have never become a reality.
This brings the conversation back to sacrifice versus contribution. Skloot arguably made a contribution to journalism and nonfiction by authoring this book. Henrietta Lacks and her family made a sacrifice to this project, yet just as Henrietta’s name is not on a tombstone above her grave, the name of her family, who contributed extensively to the cause are also invisible in the products of their beloved Henrietta’s legacy. Yes, despite her contributions to science, Lacks laid in a muffled plot with her mother and other relatives with no grave marker for decades. This may seem like a reflection of poverty, but the nameless black female body in death depicts her faceless and otherwise insignificant status in life.
Elsie also lies in an unmarked grave near her mother, those sad brown eyes referenced in the film seemingly cognizant of how her story would end. These sad brown eyes are present throughout the black diaspora, beautifully tragic and still. The conscious brown eyes cast among this HBO film were also sad, because this story does not resurface to publicize our suffering but as yet another effort to dispel whites as inherently racist. Ironically, in execution and process this film is racist. The film casts every black body into the role Henrietta Lacks—except it was our cells that were abducted but our story. Thus, in short the film fails in telling Lacks story with dignity but authors an essential page in the black female narrative, a page that reads
“There is a photo on the wall of a woman I never met, but I see her at work, on the television. In the characters I encounter while reading. I see her in the mirror, and hear her unspoken voice when I speak. She is me and I am her.”
Every member of the black collective has a face that hangs on their wall or in an abandoned photo album. While this face bears a vague familiarity it is one never seen in life because this once vivacious body died prematurely. The details around their death is foggy, but most family members have buried their queries and suspicions with their loved one. Henrietta Lacks embodies all these family members across the black diaspora who were used, abused and left for dead. She embodies the temperate beauty of someone who generally wishes to do good in a world that has solely handed them everything bad.
Black women are all connected, and thereby all abducted, systemized, raped, objectified and dismembered. We are also all story tellers, so it is imperative that we tell our own stories. Like Harriet Washington does in Medical Apartheid and Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, it is time that we resurrect our murdered and cyclically disenfranchised elders and youths to breathe life into those left lifeless by western systems.
In famed poem “Harlem” Langston Hughes considers all the possibilities of a dream deferred. However, the query the Lacks story prompts is “What happens to a story untold?” It doesn’t stink like rotten meat, it doesn’t explode… it’s stolen. Just like our native tongue, our last names and indigenous culture, our stories are constantly abducted and sold for profit just like the bodies seized from the coast of African centuries ago.
In closing, blacks in America often do not tell their own stories because we are not taught to be groundbreaking. We are nurtured to aim merely to walk above the ground. There is a moment in the film where Skloot and Deborah Lacks are in the place where Henrietta and Elsie are buried and Deborah stands above their graves and reflects. This scene, while the creative liberty of the producers, illustrates what blacks have been told to do. To go against the grain is to be ground-breaking, to break the ground beneath you and unveil the buried and forgotten atrocities destined to resurface in ignorance. It is easy to forget about the ugliness that has consistently befallen us as a people in moments of temperate happiness, but the exploitation of Henrietta, Elsie and the millions of other black female bodies that lay cold beneath the ground, compromised by Western greed and cavalier disregard reminds us that as a collective we forgive and forget far too easily. Those beneath the ground hold the answers to our questions and the key to our future, and those above the ground solely seek to seize and clone not Lack’s cells but her anguish for their own advancement.
Thus, if viewers take anything from the Henrietta Lacks story let it be the importance of learning our stories in their entirety as unlearned history is bound to repeat itself. Furthermore, despite the urge to look forward, we must never forget to look back.
Be aware. Be careful. Be wise. Beware.