A Glimpse Into My Life

See it through my eyes & understand me a little more

Category Archives: Historical Elements

The Immortality and Identity of Henrietta Lacks

 

You walk into an inviting room and approach the receptionist’s desk. Most times, they smile in your direction and inquire as to why you are there. You sign in on the clipboard and the thought may cross your mind, “What do they do with this?” Since it’s routine, it’s fleeting. You finish signing in by confirming your information.

And then you take your seat.

You wait. 10 minutes on a great day or close to an hour on a really bad day. Finally, you hear your name called. You walk through a door and you glimpse an official-looking sign that may read: NO ENTRY UNLESS ACCOMPANIED BY STAFF. This part of the office is less inviting. Your escort knows this and tries to lighten the mood by engaging you in small talk.

“How have you been since the last time we saw you?” You step on a scale. They take a note. “Oh right! I remember. Did you manage to get that job you were applying for?” You walk down a hall illuminated by fluorescent lighting. “I know that’s right. That’s all you can do.” You walk into a room with two chairs next to a very small desk which holds a computer used for notating in your electronic chart. “You can have a seat in one of those chairs.” You sit down and explain why you’re there. If it’s a good day, it’s just a check-up.

But if it’s a bad day? There is really no telling where it will go.

You answer those questions as best you can. Your escort finishes their notations and says the words that you either welcome with anticipation or meet with dread.

“The doctor will be in shortly.”

***

Most of us have this very sterile experience when visiting our doctor’s office. While there are many people who are there for routine visits, a great majority of us often go when we feel something is wrong in our bodies. In these cases, we trust that our doctors and their staff will do right by us and give us the type of treatment that allows us to live the long lives we hope for ourselves. The expectation here is that Mothers will walk out the door to spend time with their Children. Daughters will walk out the door to spend time with their Mothers. Wives with Husbands. The expectation here is that doctors not only heal, but that they heal our bodies with good intention. But a sad trend is that if you are (1) Black, (2) poor, (3) uneducated, or (4) any combination of the first three, the likelihood is that you won’t have that experience. You won’t have the experience of being seen as a whole person with a family outside of the walls of the hospital. You, and to some extent your body, can become a fascinating specimen where the need to make a significant contribution to society and science erase the empathy that allows medical professionals to see you as a person.

That was the case with Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks. Shutterstock Image.

It took me a day and a half to read the tapestry Rebecca Skloot weaved in her writing of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The author does a stunning job of adding the depth of Personhood that is intentionally stripped by most scientists in their discussion of her. To many? She is a “thing”; a marvelous thing but a thing nonetheless. Skloot reminds you (the reader) that the woman behind the HeLa cell very much mattered to those she touched in life. In The Immortal Life, you learn of her impact on her children, husband, extended family, and community. Finally, you get the idea that what made her remarkable wasn’t that a damaging piece of her was immortal; but that she loved fully and completely – even in damaging circumstances. She was real. She was raw. But more than that? She had a name.

For that alone, I would recommend the book to any person who is interested in learning about the woman responsible for many of the leaps and bounds medicine has made in the last 60 years.

However, as I read this book, I felt a gathering of emotion that will easily consume anyone identifying as part of an underserved population. As a Black American woman from a low-income background who currently finds herself a part of the working poor? This book brought to surface the feeling of “Other” I was introduced to early in life by those possessing some form of societal privilege. In many instances, I was reminded of the extensive disenfranchisement and abuse Black Americans endured at the hands of those in power. This reminder left a constant knot of frustration in my throat while reading.

Other parts of me, trained social scientist, abuse survivor, and the patient living with a chronic health condition, read the book differently. “For once,” I thought, “here is a book that puts it plainly what it means to be Black and poor in the US and experience different institutions.”

As a social scientist, I appreciated the qualitative approach Ms. Skloot took in introducing those close to Henrietta Lacks. You were reminded she had a family because their voices and emotional burdens were loud, clear, and distinct on these pages. Their frustration in never receiving an answer to the ever-present question of “What happened to my Mother/Wife/Cousin/Friend?” was palpable. Their condemnation of those who would take advantage of people who trust someone because of their expertise was rightfully placed. More than that? The void of having missed a Mother/Wife/Cousin/Friend in their lives would never be filled and was only exacerbated by the assumptions they understood what was happening to their family. With the writing of this book, Ms. Skloot seemed to help fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle. This left me somewhat relieved.

As an abuse survivor, I readily recognized the cyclical and long-term damage of being harmed at the hands of close relatives. To see it take place generationally reminded me of the “Keep family business in the family!” stance many Black families take. I thought about how differently life might have been for a few of the women in the book had they received the kind of help that would let them lead a life free from worry. I wondered what would have happened if they had been advocated for. More than that? I recognized their bodies being harmed as a byproduct of having to protect the Black Family and the Black Man above protecting their own Black bodies. The intellectual toll, emotional scars, and lack of skills to cope with physical abuse was also illustrated. This left me mostly sad.

As a patient living with chronic health issues, I felt conflicted reading about a woman whose death directly contributed to my personal management of my health crises. As a Black woman living with chronic health issues? I felt anger at the thought that my cells could be used (and probably are being used) in such a fashion. I thought about the lack of accountability in meeting people where they are when explaining confusing ideas and field-specific terms. I thought about the lack of foresight many of the medical professionals seemed to possess when it came to deciding between furthering their ambitions or receiving a “No.” from a patient fully aware of the risks involved. This left me mostly angry.

As a person from a low-income background, I felt a deep connection to the environments many of the voices introduced in the book found themselves in. At any moment? I can take a trip to a neighborhood not too far away and see the implications of what happens when people are tossed to the side only to be remembered when they need to clear space for other people. In many of these instances, the faces there will look like mine – Black or Brown but noticeably absent of white faces. Understanding this, the distrust of Ms. Skloot was warranted. After all, who put people like us in those neighborhoods to begin with? Who benefitted most from programs allowing upward mobility and a chance at a life better than the one their parents experienced? The blight and subsequent effect on the welfare and well-being of the remaining Lackses spoke to the determination to make it by any means necessary. All too often, this is a story many Black Americans still find themselves tied to. This “fact of life” left me reminded with what it means to be burdened while Black.

Overall, this book was a really good (almost great) read. It was written well and comes across as thoughtfully intentioned. The biggest thing is that it finally gives the everyday person an idea of the woman being called Immortal in the medical and scientific community.

We are finally told of the woman Henrietta Lacks.

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Artificial Masculinity

Artificial (adj) – Made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, typically as a copy of something natural; contrived or false; conventional as opposed to natural; insincere or affected

In essence, a facade.

The Issue

With the recent release of Rihanna’s “Man Down” video (here), people have decided to raise their voices concerning a very important issue to the Black community. For those who haven’t seen the video causing all of the controversy, Rihanna essentially shoots an assailant after he stalks her when she leaves a party and rapes her in an alley.

Given that scenario, it was no surprise that people had something to say.

I was surprised by what people decided to take issue with  — the murder of a Black man. Not the rape. Not the stalking. Not the depression of the victim. But the murder of a Black man (who in my eyes was no longer a man when he decided to assert his masculinity and take what wasn’t willingly given to him).

Why Does This Happen?

But the question is why does this type of behavior towards Black women take place, especially at the hand of Black men?

During a discussion on Twitter concerning Black men, Black women, and various forms of harassment, @purplepeace79 posed the question, “Do we think over generations of being unable to do anything to protect Black women, that Black men simply gave up?” It was a very interesting thought and I found myself saying yes. I then responded with, “I’d also say that it stems from not being able to be a man in larger society, so they mimic negative behavior towards us.”

And this is what I mean by artificial masculinity.

For far too long, the Black community has had to cope with the negative implications of our men being feminized (made something more characteristic of women) by larger society. What could possibly come from a legacy of slavery where Black men were used to breed and family units were almost nonexistent (roughly 1619 until 1863)? What could possibly come from the disenfranchisement we faced (as a community) after the Reconstruction era (roughly 1870 until 1964)? How could we cope as a community when men were pushed from the home with the Vietnam War and subsequent Welfare Laws? How could we possibly rebuild ourselves after the Crack Epidemic (1984 to 1990) and then the War on Drugs? And let us not forget the war on poverty. After all of this, we really feel that as a community, we are unscathed and that men are…Men?

No. They are not. Not fully anyhow.

What we are witnessing with the majority of men is simply what happens when role models are only present through the television and gang culture has seem to become the law of the land. Stereotypes are projected through media and impressionable young people come of age idolizing those who experienced a quick rise to riches and a fast fall to nothing (think American Gangster, Scarface, and the main character from GTA). For most, fathers are not around and our community has moved from the stance that “It Takes A Village To Raise A Child” (which has been capitalized upon by white women, most notably HIllary Clinton) to one of, “If that’s your kid, then you deal with it.”

We’ve moved to silence.

Because of this, we’ve put our entire community in danger because we are allowing young men to run around with free rein doing what they think a man should do. men say what they want to women without regard to how disrespectful it is. men don’t heed the word no and when a woman speaks up, she becomes a bitch. Or a ho. men congregate in hopeless flocks with nowhere to go except the streets. Men are doing what they think defines masculinity and it’s simply contributing to the demise of a community. Our entire community has become like an antique plate which is perched on a perilous ledge waiting to fall over and shatter.

What Can Be Done

Just as the problem affects the whole community, it will take all of us to fix it.

Men raise your Sons. You all constantly walk around bashing single mothers and harping on their inability to raise young boys up properly. So you take up the task and do so. For those of you who don’t have any Sons (or children for that matter), MENTOR. Move back to a time of community and work with the young men in your neighborhood. Take something as simple as coaching a team, and instituting principles of manhood into practices. Tutor someone and mention that young men should respect young women within the classroom. When you teach a young man to tie a tie, mention that he’s to hold open doors for young women as well AND to not react if she doesn’t say thank you. As a woman, she could just be silenced by the shock of the situation (because it doesn’t happen often). But most of all, highlight that they can not respect women if they don’t respect themselves or their Mothers.

Make sure respect for self translates into respect for women and the larger community.

Women, we aren’t off the hook either. While men are busy raising their sons, teach your daughters that it is okay to speak up (unless her intuition is telling her to shush it). After reviewing some of the responses to purplepeace79’s tweet, I’ve come to the conclusion that while some men are fully aware that the disrespectful behavior is just that, they remain silent because we remain silent. Tell your Daughters that it is okay to have a voice. Give them a whistle and tell them to blow the hell out of it when males say some crazy mess to them. Teach your Sons that their masculinity is not predicated upon how disrespectful they are towards women. When walking out with them, encourage them to compliment women (as youngsters and to address them respectfully). Promote positive behavior towards young women by you yourself being positive towards yourself (which is an entirely different blog all on it’s on). ALWAYS. Children mimic what they see. But most of all, highlight that they can not respect women if they don’t respect themselves or their Mothers.

Make sure respect for self translates into respect for women and the larger community.

It’s time that we work on reclaiming what is ours, and men, this means that you have to raise your Sons. For some of you guys out there, this may mean that you’ll finally have to raise yourselves.

Counter-Narrative: What’s Behind African-American Views on Swimming?

I have a habit of reading news articles and blog postings in the morning. It’s my way of staying abreast of “hot” topics and I get to hear others’ opinions on issues that I deem relevant. So imagine my surprise when I saw @BlackInformant tweet of a blog posting entitled, “Hair or History: What’s Behind African-American Views on Swimming?” I thought, “Oh, someone is taking a look at why African-Americans (largely) don’t swim.” I clicked and immediately became disappointed. In keeping with the current trend to garner readers and generate hits to blogs, this author immediately took the spin that African-Americans don’t swim because women are afraid of their hair reverting to its pre-relaxed state. *yawn*

 Before I get into my opinion on this matter and offer to you all a different perspective as to why African-Americans don’t swim, I’ll say that this is tired. This angle (let’s lambast African-American women and their choices about themselves) is old news. Can we let it go already? Please.

 To begin with, my initial reaction to this piece was negative. Since when did African-American women become synonymous with African-Americans (as a whole)? Our designation, racial or otherwise, includes two genders: male and female. This point alone cannot be argued and the fact that the author chose to focus only on African-American women devalued whatever point they wanted to make. In keeping with the misleading focus, the only “historical” evidence is the connection drawn between the European standard of beauty (e.g., straightening one’s hair so that it’s less African). In my opinion, this perspective, while valid in a sense, is indirect and doesn’t lead to a critical analysis of the topic at hand.

 Now the question is, “What should have been said surrounding this issue?”

 It is true. African-Americans, in large part, do not swim and our children are put at an increased risk of “accidental drowning” (a death that is very preventable). According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), “in 2007, there were 3,443 fatal unintentional drownings in the United States, averaging ten deaths per day; more than one in five fatal drowning victims are children 14 and younger; and the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans across all ages was 1.2 times that of whites.” Studies also show that 6 out of 10 African-American children are unable to swim. This is the reality that we live with today, but why?

 In taking note of our historical record in the United States, it is no surprise that we are largely unable to swim. I’m of the opinion that children do as their parents have done – if a parent can swim, there is an increased likelihood that you can. This seems common sense to me. So why haven’t our parents learned to swim?

 If we examine largely segregated neighborhoods TODAY, we’ll see that many do not possess the facilities that would allow daily, or even weekly, swimming. Our high schools, by and large, do not have swimming pools, so there is no need for a swimming team or the need to swim. If a child does attend a school where there is the requirement that they swim for Physical Education credit (and subsequently a passing grade), there are ways to get around this issue and many educators/facilitators of this class readily sign slips because it’s hard to teach a person how to swim.

 If we examine the racial housing practices in the 80s, we see that a large number of African-Americans were relegated to “red-lined” neighborhoods (this practice had gone on for quite some time but it was brought to prominence as the Black middle class began to grow). Again, these neighborhoods, while a step up, may have lacked the facilities.

If we examine the practices of Segregation in the 60s (and before), we see that community pools prohibited African-Americans on the grounds that allowing a non-White person to swim in the pools would lead to water contamination. I commend the author of the original article for mentioning this briefly, but more has to be said about this.

 I’ll pause here and note that I’ve already gone back about 3 generations. So is it fair to say that African-Americans don’t swim because of something as simple as “hair care” issues? Isn’t that “blaming the victim” in some ways? Back to my argument.

 If we examine racial tension prior to the 1960s and dare to go back to slavery, we’ll see that there was no reason for African-Americans to swim. Largely, we were not given the opportunity for free time and I’m pretty sure that there weren’t very many swimming holes in the South…that were safe. For any person that is familiar with the landscape of the South (or the North before industrialization), you’ll realize that swimming holes were in isolated places…and it was never a safe bet for a Black person to be caught alone and/or having fun during these times.

 I think that I’ve made my point, but in the even that I haven’t, I want you all to take a few points with you:

1. We should encourage our Youth to learn how to swim properly. There is nothing more exciting in the summer than to cool off at a local pool and given the rates of accidental drownings in African-American youth, the ability to swim is a necessary skill.

2. Don’t reduce (or mislabel) a topic that applies to an entire diaspora to one sect of that population. If you want to write on African-American women, be up front about it. If it’s your intention to generate critical thought about the racial group as a whole, then speak on the group as a whole. I speak for many women when I say, we’re sick and tired of being the scapegoat simply to generate hits to your blogs/articles.

3. Finally, if you wish to analyze an issue historically, then do so. Provide evidence that backs you up. Provide anecdotes from older people. Look up statistics, it’s not that hard.

 But remember: be pure about your intentions. As a writer, the only thing that you have is your name.

Original article: Hair or History: What’s Behind African-American Views on Swimming? 

Sources:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention – http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Water-Safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html

Despite Olympic Gold, Swimming Statistics Are Grim. Author: Tara Parker-Pope

Introducing: Queen Hatshepsut

One of the things that I hope to do with my blog is to educate those on historical figures (in addition to providing an intimate picture into my life). With that being said, I’ve decided to start posting brief histories of influential Black/African/African-American women that we should all be aware of. I hope that you enjoy.

*Miss C. Jayne

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One of the greatest queens of ancient Kemet was Queen Hatshepsut. While she was known as a “warrior” queen, her battles were engaged with her own rivals for the position of power in Kemetic hierarchy. A born dynast in her own right, Hatshepsut proved to be an aggressive and overpowering force. However, it was not in war, but in her aspiration to ascend to the “Heru (Horus) consciousness,” she displayed the strength that has given her a place in history. She adopted the Truth of Maat and became involved in the elimination of undesirable people and elements from Kemet. Determined to be revered in times yet to come, Hatshepsut depicted herself in as many masculine attributes as possible, i.e. male attire, king’s beard, etc. Although she ascended to the throne upon the death of her king-brother Thutmose II, she exerted her rightful claim to the throne. In exercising her power, she involved herself in foreign campaigns, a concentration on domestic affairs, extensive building and commercial ventures. The most famous of her commercial ventures was the Punt expedition in which goods and produce were acquired from the rich market there to be brought back to Kemet. While it would appear that her opponents were not antagonistic regarding her sex, they were so regarding her non-aggressive philosophy.

Even before becoming legal ruler, Hatshepsut, was actively pushing things dearest to the hearts of all Africans leaders: the expansion of foreign trade, international diplomatic relations, perfection of national defense, vast public building programs, securing the South and the North through either peace or war and, one of her “pet projects”, building a great navy for both commerce and war. Her success on most of these fronts made her one of the giants of the race.

Source: African Queens