287: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

The Good

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me think about so many topics:

Black psychological health~ how the past (and present) monstrosities brings a toil on black people.

Black psychiatric hospitals~ I want to do more research but have to prepare myself for it to be super extremely traumatic.

Accountability~ at what point is there accountability then change.

Light and dark side of the science field.

Money~ flow of cash and how it can completely cut out  (usually people of color/non-white folk but in this case black folk) of the equation of any flow of money even though it is their body and labor of experience.

I liked seeing the history of Henrietta,  the Lacks family, and science. There were some really sad moments that had me so close to tears because of all the things that happened to the Lacks family. Their experiences are so raw but (possibly) real to time period and them. I’m happy that with all the science this book did not become unreadable.

The Bad

I never pondered/felt whiteness of author while reading nonfiction as much as I did with this book. I question the portrayal of the Lacks family and motives of Rebecca Skloot.

My first instance of noticing this problem was when I started the audiobook for this book. So I “cheated” a bit by getting the audiobook for this book so I could read it faster to get to a another book from blogging for books.”Ugh black dialogue white narrator” was one the first notes i made about this book . I did not immediately think the narrator is keying in on the questionable portrayal of the Lacks by Skloot. She portrayed them as ignorant, uneducated, and superstitious so much. I question why she felt the need to write about certain moments that happened.  As a writer portraying black people you have to be careful how you portray them especially if they even remotely fall into certain stereotypes.  At one point I was like did the Lacks read this and okay it?  It airs out some dirty laundry that is so dark and raw. Also, there are so many moments she portrayed with herself (enlightened) while showing the Lacks (ignorant).

There were too moments were it felt like she was colorblinding the issues. I’m cool with Skloot using her white privilege to shine light on Henrietta Lacks but feel uncomfortable with how she couldn’t give the family directly any of the profits and the accolades she got.

I don’t know if I adequately articulated everything I felt and why. There are a lot of other reviewers who went more in depth into the reasons I felt uncomfortable with certain things in this book.


I hope the movie coming out about her life avoids white savior, gaze, and all the traps so much. Off I go to read a book that is going to make me uncomfortable in a different way.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


Author: themollyweather

I like to read, a lot.

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