A Glimpse Into My Life

See it through my eyes & understand me a little more

Category Archives: Human Rights

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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Rape Is Never Funny

Just as the title states, rape is never funny. Yet people constantly choose to explain to those of us who are disgusted by is usage is in jokes exactly why it IS, and should be, considered comical. The fact remains that it is NOT funny. It will never be funny and any person who chooses to laugh at it without raising an eyebrow or shedding light on the injustice is a willing perpetrator in continuing the assault on persons who have experienced this tragedy.

By Definition…

By definition, rape is a verb, an action, which is defined as the forcing of another person to have sexual intercourse without their consent or against their will, especially by threat or use of violence among them. It also means to spoil or destroy a place. Think about that last part for a moment.

To spoil or destroy a place.

To spoil…to diminish or destroy the value or quality of. To prevent someone from enjoying an occasion or event. To rob of goods or possession by force or violence. To ruin. To mar. To corrupt. To damage. To vitiate. To plunder upon. To prey upon. To pillage.

That’s what a Person’s humanity has been reduced to when they are raped. It has become unrecognizable to them and to others around them. They are less than and the assault on a person’s humanity comes in many different masks. It can look like acquaintance rape (someone knows the victim), date rape (someone accompanied the victim on an outing), gang rape (a group of people commit sexual assault against one person), marital rape (a spouse refuses to heed the “No.”), and statutory rape (a minor is assaulted by a legal adult).

Rape is often something a Person relives when they are placed around triggers and anything can be a trigger. From the way something looks to a sound in the background. To a smell while out in public or the feeling of a unknowing stranger bumping into them. Anything can be a trigger. And as People, we are stimulated through our senses…

So imagine living an assault repeatedly because you happen to be human?

Rape Doesn’t Happen That Often…

To the naysayers, here’s a quick snapshot of Rape. The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network or RAINN, is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. They compile the picture of rape and their website reports:

  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed; 2.8% attempted)
  • 17.7 million American women have been the victims of attempted or completed rape
  • 9 out of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003
  • While 80% of victims are white, minorities are more likely to be attacked
  • About 3% of American men – or 1 in 33 – have been victims (2.78 million men in the US have been victims or sexual assault or rape)
  • 15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12
  • 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 said they have been sexually abused
  • 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 said they have been sexually abused
  • 93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker

Rape happens.

Injustices against people’s humanity happens. The effects of rape are lifelong and takes much therapy to get through. Victims of rape/sexual assault are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more like to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 4 times more like to contemplate suicide.

But We Can’t Really Do Anything… Can We?

We can.

“If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” -Desmond Tutu

The most important thing that we can do is to remember that we live in a society that rewards conquests of the unknown and make up our minds that we won’t continue to sit by silently. SPEAK UP!

Speak up about ill intentions and unwanted affections being displayed by your friends. Tell them to think about it. Remind them that jail time can come along with it and IF you know of someone who has been assaulted, encourage them to make a report.

Speak up when people make “jokes” about the issue because nothing is funny about sexual assault. Refuse to laugh at jokes that include the word rape. After all, nothing is funny about 80% of women and 3% of men reporting that their Person was assaulted.

Call out people who use the term is a cavalier fashion (there is nothing funny about people saying, “Such and such a company raped me when they had me pay too much.”) In this instance, remember that it was a choice for the person to frequent the establishment and victims had no choice in what happened to them.

Speak up about implied assault in advertising. When you do, things like THIS happen.

Become an Ally.

Become someone who a person can trust completely without wondering about ill intentions. Become someone who stands up for faceless victims because just as there are people who report this, there are many people who don’t. Become a person that doesn’t rationalize rape, sexual assault, street harassment, molestation, and any other unwanted sexual behavior. Become a person who doesn’t question the victim first or question the outlet in which they choose to tell their story.

Become someone who remembers that a victim is, and will always be, a Person. Become someone who cares.

It’s time that we move past this idea that rape can be funny because it never is.

The Best Interest of the Child

Today, I came across an article about a woman who’s homeless and had been arrested for using her son’s babysitter’s address to enroll him into school. She was arrested and she’s out on bond. She’s now awaiting trial (or whatever they are going to do next). For me, this is more than about a woman who is criminalized because she did the best that she could with what she had. Granted, I don’t know the details of the story but from what I can gather, it is a miscarriage of justice. Read the story for yourselves.

I’m upset because this story is about much more than education. For those of you that don’t know, I have a BS in Psychology and a MA in Urban Education Policy, which means when I see stories like this in the media, it never is just about the issue at hand. In this case, people are concerned because they feel a woman (she’s not even a Mother at this point) deserves to be made an example of because she stole education for a child.

Let’s break this down —

The biggest concern of the school (not even the district) is that a woman stole education. Education in this country is guaranteed, which means that in my mind, you technically can’t steal it. To go from this idea that everyone is “guaranteed an adequate education” to the idea that it’s okay to prosecute marginalized constituents because they sought an adequate education for their children is ludicrous. For me, this directly highlights the issue of the “Us” versus “Them” that we desperately struggle with in our country. In this case, the “Us” happens to be those who look like they can afford a $15,000 education, while those who are identified as “Them” happen to be any one person who could mess up that image. At this level, it’s really about stereotyping and presenting an image.

The second thing that truly bothered me was that no one is concerned with the identity and development of the young boy in question. We live in a country that tramples on the rights of the child daily. We read and hear about children who are arrested for simple infractions that become blown out of proportion because of Zero Tolerance Policies. We hear and read about children who are abused daily, yet their parents/caregivers remain free because people operate under the best interest of the adult while promulgating that they are concerned with the rights/best interest of the child. As someone who studied (somewhat seriously) development in youth, a child being suddenly stripped from an environment they may have thrived in, especially if it concerns education, is alarming. No one saw anything wrong with disrupting this young man’s emotional, physical, mental, and educational development? That’s an issue for me.

Finally, the question that no one is asking is what happens to the people who have now become criminalized? Will the Mother have the opportunity to get a job (I’m not sure if she had one in the first place but if she did, I hope she didn’t lose it)? What about the woman who was evicted from her public housing unit for allowing them to use her address? Where is she staying? Is she now a member of the homeless population? For those that don’t know, when you commit a crime or you happen to be an accessory to a crime and you live in public housing, should you become evicted from your space, you’re no longer eligible for said assistance. Then there’s always the question of cyclical poverty AND imprisonment. Let’s operate from the stance that the Mother didn’t have a record. Now she does. Statistics show time and again that children whose parents have been incarcerated are much more likely to become institutionalized/imprisoned than their peers who haven’t? So have we set this young man on a path of destruction now? What about his future? What are the implications there?

Thoughts On The Label Militant

I’ve never liked that label. If you really know me, then you know why. I remember my first encounter with being called “militant.” I was in the 8th grade and a teacher asked me what influential Black (African) American I looked up to. So, I spouted off a few people and my list included:

Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez.

*Actually, my list was entirely women but that’s a trivial matter.

This led to a string of questions and I answered them all to the best of my 13-year-old ability and was then called “MILITANT.” Sheesh…I managed to go ONE week without a teacher saying something sideways and three weeks, THREE, before graduation, I’m called a militant by my Social Studies teacher.

I was heartbroken.

I knew that folks got a sour taste in their mouth when they said the world. I knew that militants were looked at as troublemakers. I’d heard that people felt militants didn’t shower and that they just wanted to shoot everything and everyone down in their path (I was 13, highly impressionable, and had cousins who took advantage of that). I knew that folks did not like militant people and I wanted to be liked.

Besides, I didn’t believe in the use of guns (although I feel you SHOULD have the right to protect yourself). I didn’t believe in not showering (if there were ever to be an 11th Commandment, “Thou shall wash thyself daily” would be it). I was an Honor Roll student, not a troublemaker (unless you count the fact that I dropped pencils and knocked stuff off of desks because I was clumsy).

So I couldn’t be militant! There was no way I was a militant.

Well, I went home and I thought about my arguments. I pulled out my encyclopedias (yes…we had these because I begged my Mom to buy them) to look up the platforms that they stood on. I went to the library the next day (on Saturday) and I did more research on the people that I looked up to. I read archived newspaper articles and I even wrote a mock “Press Release” about them.

*My teacher knew I’d do something like this…he told me later. lol

I wrote up my findings. I even made him a nice poster, so he could understand exactly what I was trying to convey. I had a little speech and everything. *I was a trip.

Sidenote: I can actually remember my presentation.

So, on the next Monday, I found him on my lunch hour and asked if he had any time at all because I wanted to talk to him. He waved me into the room and said, “Sure Ms. Lawrence (that was my last name then). I set up my materials and I cleared my throat. (Now, we were required to do weekly presentations on the materials we learned in Social Studies to our class, but I was nervous. It was just this big dude who loved History sitting in this empty classroom. I could even hear the heating system kicking on and off).

I started with, “This country was ‘built’ upon principles of equality and fundamental rights that spoke to our humanity.” <— I should be someone’s speech writer. My teacher sat back in his chair and began to smile.

I continued with, “The historical record shows that only one group has ever benefitted from the system as it was structured — White males. Groups that have been seen as militant were often just arguing for the system to be restructured, so that they too could participate as full citizens and enjoy the liberties that have been set out in our country’s most important documents.”

At this point, I put down my paper. I didn’t care about what else I’d written down. Then I whipped out my poster board. On it, I’d placed major movements, political parties, and people and the things they asked for.

The heading, “What Makes A Militant.”

The byline: “I’m Militant Because…”

This is what my poster actually said:

*I will choose to exercise my right to vote, remain informed as a citizen in this country, and hold my politicians accountable.

*I believe that every child has the right to a healthy start, decent housing, adequate nutrition, and EQUAL AND FREE education.

*I believe that we all have the right to healthcare.

*I want economic stability in my community and I believe that we should have the opportunity to be business and homeowners, as well as shareholders in corporations.

*I believe in the rights of humans, which includes women, GLBT, children, and communities of color that have been oppressed.

I ended my presentation with: IF this is what makes a militant, I’m fine with that. I just hope that other people realize that what’s being asked is ONLY radical because we’ve been duped into believing that our resources are SO STRAPPED that competition has become a necessary evil in our society. Everyone COULD have the same opportunities to succeed here…if the powers that be wanted us to.

My teacher was proud of me (Sucka knew I’d go home and do that). Said that I needed to remember all that I stood for. A lot of people were going to question, point, laugh, and demean me BUT I had to remember these things.

So I do. I wonder if he’s around still. I hope so, kids today need an influential presence like him.

Thoughts?

What If?

Last night, I had the opportunity to hear Sonia Sanchez speak at my university. I would describe the experience as life-altering and most would probably feel as though it were an exaggeration. However, that’s what it was.

I had never gone through some many emotions in one discussion. To hear her poetry, I felt elation. To hear the stories she told of young people (much like myself), I felt extreme sadness. To hear her list the people that she’s acquainted with (either through personal experience or through study), I felt immense pride. To hear her speak of the human experience, I felt connected to every person in that auditorium. She spoke. Her words were living beings. Dancing…singing…painting a picture for all of us to see, feel, love, and experience.

And at one point, I wondered, “What if she lost her words?”

In that moment, I almost cried. I began to think of the people who had come before her. Who dared to speak. What if they had lost their words? I thought of those people who walked and ran to freedom. What if they had lost their will? I thought of the many unnamed faces that marched behind Dr. King. What if they had lost their courage?

What if?

This question is of immense importance. It’s one that must be asked and one that must be remembered. My generation. We don’t remember that those who came before us had to dig within themselves and find some courage to resist (she spoke on this too). They had a right to life, yet they had to resist for it. Resist for the right to vote. Resist for a voice. Resist for the right to be addressed as adults. Resist for the right to equal housing. Resist and make claims for schools that weren’t dilapidated. Resist.

Yet, my generation…we sit back. We don’t use our words except to hurt. We don’t use our limbs except to strike. We don’t use our courage to go against the grain. We don’t use our minds. We don’t use our music to encourage. We don’t depend on one another. We don’t recognize the need for community. We don’t. They did and those that are able continue to do. But. We. Don’t.

You see, I’m not a poet. I’ll probably never travel and paint pictures with my words as Sanchez is able to do. I haven’t been gifted with the ability to compose a melody with my nouns. I probably won’t write a book that many will read and wait for me to sign. But as reminded last night, I have a right to life. We all do. As such, we must all use our gifts. The one I was given allows me to the opportunity to resist and ask, “What if your child had to attend a failing school?”

I’ll take my words. I’ll use them. I’ll craft opportunities for young people. I’ll teach others what I’ve been taught from those who’ve walked before me. I’ll remember and I’ll work to make life better for those around and after me. The most profound (yet simple) thing that she said, “Everyone has a contract to life.” I signed my contract in the field of Educational Policy. I’ll take my contract (since it’s renewed everyday) into my community. I’ll speak words of peace. I’ll live love. I’ll hand out contracts of life to others. I’ll hope they sign. I’ll do this all because I remember those before me and I ask the question, “What if?”

And I hope that you do to.

Dream.Hope.Believe.