Henrietta Lacks And Race

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There's some talk below about what role race played in Henrietta Lacks' treatment. Here's the author on Fresh Air:

GROSS: Was this a standard procedure then, or was this considered experimental?

Ms. SKLOOT: Absolutely standard. And this is one of the interesting things, it's sort of an important point in the history of Henrietta Lacks. Her story has often been held up as one of, you know, these sort of, you know, awful, white doctors who did these really kind of vicious treatments to her and stole her cells without telling her because they knew they'd be valuable, and that really wasn't the case at all.

They were taking cervical cancer tissues from any woman who walked into Hopkins with cervical cancer, and this was absolutely the standard treatment. And, in fact, it was considered the sort of top of the line.

But, you know, there are other questions about, you know, this was a colored ward. This was the Jim Crow era. You know, the reason she was at Hopkins in the first place was because she was black, and there were not really many other hospitals around where she could have gotten treated. She also had no money, and Hopkins was a charity hospital. So she was in the public wards. And, you know, there have been plenty of studies that have looked at how segregation affected health care delivery.

So she did get the standard care of the day, but she was definitely sent home -many times after her radiation treatment, she came back complaining of various pains and was sent home and sent home and sent home until she eventually refused to go home and said no, put me in the hospital. And at that point, her cancer had spread so much, and there probably wasn't anything the doctors could have done either way. But, you know, the question of how race played into her health care is a hard one to answer.

I just want to add that one thing I've tried to do is get us away from seeing racism/white supremacy as the work of evil immoral hobgoblins, conspiring to do their worst to black people. If it were ever that easy, there would be no racism, and there never would have been any white supremacy. When I wrote:

On another point, I'm almost certain I'll never read this book. This has everything to do with me, and nothing to do with the quality of the book, which I'm sure is top-notch. It's just that after awhile, you come to some understanding about the broad truth of black people in this country. Once I got that--once I understood that African-Americans have historically been this country's great unwashed--stories like this are almost predictable.

Again, that's not a slight on the book, and it's a slight against stories like this. Part of how I've come to that understanding is by reading books exactly like this one. (Bad Blood for instance.) But for me personally, I think I've answered the question that this book would help me to explore. 

I did not so much mean to leave people with the impression that "clearly they targeted her because she was black" so much as to point out that it's virtually impossible to seriously consider any black person in 1951--a time when white supremacy was practiced in almost every sphere--without thinking about race, about without thinking about black people as the country's great unwashed.

It's certainly possible to say that her treatment at the hospital "was standard practice." But when you understand the incredible web of racism which gripped this country in 1951, it becomes very hard to look at any black person living in that time and say "this would have happened exactly the same way to anyone." Racism altered everything.

It's never been clear to me that the Tuskegee experiments were performed strictly because the farmers were black.  Indeed, it would not shock me at all if at that very moment, some doctors, somewhere in America, were doing something equally heinous to a group of whites. Morever, some of the black people who assisted thought they were actually helping. It's about more than exclusive villainy. Being black isn't just about being singled out for a particular fate, it's about a disproportionate chance that you will suffer a particular fate.

At the moment, cervical cancer is one of those fates. Maybe it wasn't back then.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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