A Glimpse Into My Life

See it through my eyes & understand me a little more

Tag Archives: Racism

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.

Advertisements

The Benefit of Humanity

Last night, I tossed and turned hoping that sleep would welcome me into its embrace. No such thing happened and I decided to write.

It’s hard to rest when your heart and spirit are weary. It is hard to breathe when it feels as though your chest has filled with water. I came to understand that my weariness was the realization that I could awake tomorrow to news of another “tragedy” and the feeling of it being hard to breathe was grief complicated beyond measure.

In Charleston, in a place of worship and refuge, nine Black American citizens gathered to safely study and learn of the grace and gift of God. They welcomed a stranger, as Jesus commanded many to do before them. They offered this stranger a place to sit and share and breathe and live. For an hour, this stranger did just that. And in an instant, the stranger became a terrorist.

Nine of those gathered within a holy space were murdered for merely existing.

As news of this tragedy spread along with the description of all victims and the sole perpetrator, I could see this to be a calculated measure spurred by the deeply entrenched notion of Black people as something to be feared.

Something. Not someone.

Like clockwork, media began to ask questions that I am sure are considered hard-hitting and cutting-edge to someone. Questions such as “What could these Black people have done to prevent this?” and “Should white people now be afraid of black people?” Absurd questions when you think of it because who would think that you would ever need to protect yourself in a place of worship that sits in a land built on freedom of worship?

Unfortunately, we then heard the questions, comments, and suggestions made about the man who murdered these innocent people. Things like “What would possess him to do this?” and “Maybe there is a mental illness that we don’t know about.” Most ludicrous of all were the statements “Allow him due process under the law.” and “Let’s not judge him in the court of public opinion.

This adult male, aged 21-years old at the time he coldly executed people in a calculated fashion, was given the benefit of his humanity.

Black Americans watched as many defended this many and simultaneously deflected the notion that it was a terrorist attack with racial motivations EVEN AFTER he admitted this to be the reason he murdered these people. Black Americans learned that there were people who knew about this plot for months but dismissed it as just “talk.”

Most offensively, Black Americans watched as the police apprehended him peacefully.

You see? Because of the benefit of his humanity, this man will see his day in court. And when he does, they will uphold it as evidence that the justice system is fair.

And so I write this as a reflection of what it means to be Black and a Woman and American and operate daily within a system that was built on the backs of my ancestors.

People do not care that I must grapple with my Black identity as I walk on streets named after Confederate generals who fought wholeheartedly to keep the institution of slavery as we learn about it in school in place (the North will have a day of reckoning behind their involvement in slavery).

No one bats an eye at the thought that we frequent financial institutions that descendants of slaveholders were allowed to open with wealth amassed while Black bodies were treated as chattel.

We are given weak apologies from some of the finest educational institutions in the world for their involvement in the dehumanization of Black people.

Be quiet, Slave.

We are told to move on and act peacefully in our grief as we point out that this is always about the fear of Blackness.

Be quiet, Slave.

We are told these instances of terrorism that make the news are isolated incidents when in actuality they support the system of disenfranchisement upholding the status quo.

Be quiet, Slave.

We are told to erase our culture and identities as that is what makes us animals while being expected to swallow the offensive performance of Blackness executed by those who benefit from White Privilege.

Be quiet, Slave.

We are expected to go along with the “program” of acceptable outrage that demonstrates that you can be upset someone would wear fur but not that police will murder your children in the streets and let their blood run into the gutter.

Be quiet, Slave.

In the many institutions that make up the complex fabric of the United States of America, Black Bodies are seen as expendable, yet necessary, to move the wheel of systemic and systematic oppression forward. And we know the reality is we are not even viewed as human enough, worthy enough, to warrant outrage behind being slaughtered like animals. We are not seen as human enough to warrant the removal of offensive reminders of the past.

We are not seen as human.

The sad reality is that many who benefit from White Privilege view our mere existence as trivial. They do not see us as we walk down the street. They do not place money in our hands when we serve them in our jobs. They do not acknowledge the idea of personal space belonging to a Black person. And while there are a few brave allies willing to put their good names on the line for what it right, many of them unknowingly uphold the system that invaded our countries, the bodies of our mothers and fathers, and our psyches.

I sit with this heavy on my heart as I count down to another birthday, something the nine victims of an attack spurred by racism can no longer do. I have come to understand that my Blackness, as amazing and divinely inspired as it is, serves as an iron veil that would never allow me the benefit of humanity.

And so, I write their names below with the idea that it is just another reminder that they did matter. More than melanin and blood and bone, they were spirits who touched the lives of others. They were mothers who gave birth to children. They were fathers who molded the minds of those under them. They were neighbors. They worked. They loved. They hurt. They laughed. They cried. They welcomed strangers.

They prayed.

They were human. They were people. They will be remembered.

Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 41.

Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 54.

Myra Thompson, 59.

Tywanza Sanders, 26.

Ethel Lee Lance, 70.

Cynthia Hurd, 54.

Daniel L. Simmons, 74.

Suzy Jackson, 87.

Rev. DePayne Doctor, 49.

Is This What Regret Feels Like?

Yesterday…I realized that I may regret one thing in life and that’s not having gone into the field I dreamed of going into since I was 10.

When I was younger, I wanted to be a Chemist. No bullshit. I was smart too. Top of my class. Always on the Honor Roll and I would ask for gifts that only nerdy people asked for. Think – telescopes, microscopes and encyclopedias.

Who asks for that shit…in the hood no less?

As I got older, I started to wonder why people in my neighborhood behaved the way they did. It had to be some chemical thing and I read up on Pharmacological Research in the neighborhood library. At this point, I was 13.

In that moment, I decided that I wanted to become a Pharmacological Researcher but because I knew of the neighborhood I was being reared in and the people who were around me, I kept it to myself. I kept it to myself until the day before I left for college. And I said, offhandedly might I add, that I was going to double major in Chemistry and Psychology and then go on to a Tier I research university to finish off my studies. Even at 18, I knew…it was what I wanted to do.

And for a while, I was successful.

For those of you that don’t know, I attended a PWI, or a Predominantly White Institution and that was the most shocking wake up call ever. I got to my undergraduate institution and realized I was nowhere near prepared. I was smart, true. I had taken the tough classes, true. But I still wasn’t ready. So I worked hard and for the first year, it was all good. I did well in not only my Math & (Hard) Sciences courses but also in my Psychology courses. And I was overjoyed. Then Year 2 happened. Along with year 2 came the realization that I would have to be used to being the ONLY Black face in my course section taking the hard track (I majored in Graduate Preparation studies, so think AP of college).

But what also happened, and this is something that I wasn’t prepared for, was that I had to be ready to defend every excellent mark I made. Because there was no way that I could score that high on tests when my peers didn’t. And I got tired. I dealt with racism and sexism and I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. My friends didn’t understand…they were in “simpler” majors. My professors told me that it came with the territory. And my family questioned why I wanted to “do that shit” anyway.

So I dropped Chemistry as a major and I shrunk my dream to something that made sense to everyone. I would just major in Psychology. Well, today on Twitter, I was recounting the excitement I felt when I thought of Chemistry and I thought of Pharmacology and I’ve been wondering ever since if this is what regret feels like?

Earlier, I sorta felt like, if I could do anything, I’d go back to school and pick up chemistry again. But I don’t know what I would do with it because I’m starting to feel really drawn to working with young people. I want to be  in spaces where I can affirm them and their impossible dreams. But I want to be a Chemist.

It just feels like…well, I’m not sure what it feels like. Maybe I just want to do something so I don’t feel so helpless?