Just the other day, my friends and I were casually chatting about Spelman’s 2013 commencement and who the administration could possibly find to top the last two years’ powerhouse speakers, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. They represented everything we desired to see and be for that matter, beautiful, intelligent, erudite, and high profile.
But what about the women we don’t see? What about the African-American women who have changed our lives without a single news wave or sound clip?
As 2012 comes to a close, I want to take a moment to recognize one of the most influential, yet unknown African-American women of the 20th century. Each year, the Morehouse School of Medicine honors the legacy of the woman who unknowingly mothered modern medical innovation, yet few of us actually know the person behind the cells that have contributed to so much life-changing research. The cells cut from her body and purchased countless times have led to advances in vaccinations, cancer treatment and many more medical applications worldwide.
The world knows her cells as HeLa. The shortening of her name is the reflection of an abbreviated existence, wrought by the reduction of her worth to a network of microscopic cells that began as “two dime-sized pieces of tissue” unlawfully cut from her dying body in 1951. Through detailed juxtaposition of Henrietta Lacks’ little known personal life and the scientific implications of her death, Lacks’ biographer, Rebecca Skloot, paints a divine portrait of a woman forgotten by time.
On a winter day in Baltimore, MD, the 30-year-old tobacco farmer walked into Johns Hopkins Hospital with abdominal pain, and left with the knowledge of what would eventually lead to her death. The sequence of moments leading to Lacks’ cervical cancer diagnosis is our first glimpse into the meager status of the mid-20th century Black Woman.
Her treatment was marked by condescension and racism, as her physician labeled her sexually deviant based on her medical history and declined to fully explain the circumstances regarding her illness and its implications. Not that it necessarily would have mattered. As the matriarch of a bustling, financially strapped household, Lacks didn’t have the luxury of pausing her life.
Theft of the Black female body has existed since Africans arrived in North America. Although the practice has evolved from its carnal roots in the sexual brutality of plantation life, perhaps becoming more refined through the years, the ownership White America has taken over African-American women remains as pervasive as ever.
History has revealed women of color as universal property. As the venerable Zora Neale Hurston proclaimed, “the Negro woman is the mule of the world,” she is the soil of the Earth, walked on by all and acknowledged by few. She is used, and more often than not, abused without consequence. In her book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ” that was published two years ago, Skloot carefully detailed the process by which the medical industry stole one woman’s body and rendered her invisible.
However, Dr. Roland Pattillo, a professor of gynecology at the Morehouse School of Medicine, brought her back to life. He created the HeLa conference, an annual medical symposium honoring the legacy of Mrs. Lacks. She has contributed to our lives in more ways than we could ever imagine. There are thousands of Black women just like her, unseen, unheard, not at all glamorous, but entirely worthy of reverence and recognition.