Oprah’s film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” shows the immortal practice of Black exploitation in America

As I watched Oprah Winfrey’s HBO film adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s NY Times best-selling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” I experienced an emotion not much unlike many of my Black family members and friends who watched the same:


***Spoiler Alert—-(Henrietta Lacks was a young Black wife and mother of five who grew up in abject poverty in Tobacco country near Roanoke, Virginia. At the age of 31, she was admitted to Johns Hopkins University Hospital where she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. One researcher, Dr. George Otto Gey, discovered that her cells taken from a biopsy were “immortal,” meaning that they would replicate seemingly in perpetuity. Astonished by the find, over the next 60 some odd years, those cells and variations of the same have been used for medical research and the creation of powerful and highly lucrative drugs that have earned billions of dollars for Big Pharmaceutical concerns worldwide. Even worse, when Hela (combination of Henrietta Lacks’s first two initials in her first and last names) cell contamination occurred in the early 70s, doctors began culling cells from Lacks’s survivors, a move that strikes me as an unashamed attempt to keep the flow of resources going much like oil prospectors looking to establish new pipelines on existing fields.)

Lest we forget that to this day, the Lacks family, including her children and grandchildren, have received not one red cent from her contribution to science. Not one!

Deep sigh…

As I often lament, the history of Black folks in America since 1619 typically has that effect on me, the creation of a palpable anger about how Black minds, Black spirits, Black thrift and most painfully, Black bodies, were and continue to be exploited to make enormous wealth for everyone but Black folks.

Indeed, whether we are discussing slavery,  Jim Crow, or the fact that thriving business districts and neighborhoods in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida were razed to the ground by jealous Whites who forcibly took said property for themselves; be it inventions, inventors or even musical and athletic talent getting shafted by patent offices, “business partners,” music moguls, booking agents, athletics directors and pro sports owners, the word EXPLOITATION is the very first thing that pops into my mind when considering so much of our history in America.

Henrietta Lacks, my friends, was exploited in a massive manner.

Now, some of my readers may not have heard of Mrs. Lacks before HBO began its campaign to publicize the movie that features Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’s daughter Deborah. Neither did I; we all know that most American middle and high school history books tend to focus very brief segments on slavery, Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks and of late, former President Barack Obama, as the sum total of Black contributions to American history. As a former quiz bowl player at Morehouse and FAMU, I knew about Dr. Jonas Salk and his polio vaccination from the 1950s, but it was not until I watched Oprah’s movie last night that I learned how Mrs. Lacks’s cells were critical in testing that vaccine for mass distribution. Upon learning that, my natural curiosity had me using Google until the early morning hours to learn how my gut level anger is well placed as far as how Mrs. Lacks–and her family–have been exploited.

What upset me the most was an article this past week featured in the NY Times that was written by Holly Lynch, executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard University and Steven Joffre, an associate professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, one that argues that Lacks and her family are owed not one dime for her contribution to science. The segment that boiled my blood the most averred:

“…leftover biospecimens are just medical waste to most of us, as we lack the expertise to imbue them with scientific value. Nor have we done anything to make them valuable, other than being born with a particular genetic variant or afflicted with a particular malignancy.”

Really? Oh, it gets worse, with the pair concluding that:

“(Oprah’s) HBO movie should prompt education and dialogue…Rather than demanding consent and payment, we should promote biospecimen research…to ensure that the benefits of the research are available to all.”

Wow! No wonder when the Lacks family received nominal concessions during a meeting at Johns Hopkins with the director of the National Institutes of Health back in 2013, that “directly paying the family was not on the table” was the order of the day according to reporter Ewen Calloway of Nature magazine.

The arguments that the Lacks family should not be paid derives from the same exploitative mindset that was used during America’s oil rushes of the 19th Century. Back when the Drake Oil Field in Western Pennsylvania, one that Native Americans had used for myriad reasons for centuries, was “discovered” to have commercial energy potential in 1859, the ensuing Oil rush soon found Native lands across America “appropriated” (read-stolen) to make white Robber Barons like John D. Rockefeller richer than Kings Croesus and Mansa Musa while providing zero financial benefit to the Natives forcibly removed or tricked out of their lands.

“Black” bodies and “Native” lands, both still being used to make Robber Barons filthy rich…

Yes, there is something very perverse about the concept that the Lacks family lacks the ability to profit from their own cells. This was not some random mendicant Jane Doe—her name is embedded in the cells. How many billions, if not trillions, have been made from the Polio vaccine or drugs for STD’s and Cancer that were developed because over 50 million metric tons of Hela cells exist?

IMG_0124(Descendants of Henrietta Lacks at a marker in Virginia. Photo courtesy National Geographic)

Even worse, my knowing that the law often protects the Robber Baron classes even within Big Pharmacy, it would be extremely difficult for the family to get past statute of limitation rules as well as case-law that seemingly absolves Johns Hopkins, individual researchers and pharmaceutical concerns and even the government from responsibility since those who support the Lacks family remaining unpaid love to throw around the old “she did not object to the research” or the “why should she/they benefit from research that she/they had nothing to do with?”

Why? Because it is her and their cells that have led to remarkable breakthroughs in science, that’s why. The idea that Mrs. Lacks owned little in life but in death, is being used not just for research, but to enrich people who could not care less about her or her descendants, strikes me as but another form of exploitative “ownership”–in perpetuity–which is disgusting beyond description.

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