The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks: Now I Get It.

There has been for some time within the Black community a discussion and debate as to whether reparations are owed to the descendants of slaves for the economic exploitation that is the essence of chattel slavery. Now, historically, following the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the American Civil War, there was discussion of providing Freedmen with 40 acres and a mule, presumably for them to continue their previous employment as agricultural workers but now in their own employ. Actual chattel slavery, now illegal, was soon followed by the practice known as “sharecropping” a form of economic bondage that would bind to land they did not own for at least two more generations of slave descendants (and their white neighbors) until the economic and geographic migration to the industrial centers of the East Coast, Midwest and Pacific Coast were spurred by WWI and WWII.

“Forty Acres and a Mule” would probably have been worthless in Harlem, but maybe not. The mule could have at least been used for hauling. Still the issue of reparations has remained ebbing and flowing as a topic of conversation, fodder for scholarly and other types of debates and something of a pipe dream, that wasn’t really a dream. It was more in the nature of a festering sore, an open wound, a bit like a fractured upper arm that refuses to heal aggravated by memories of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the over-medicating of children with behavioral issues, the unaffordability of basic health care and the variable quality of care provided to military veterans. I could go on.

The HBO Films production “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, who also stars as Henrietta’s adult daughter Deborah, a Black woman driven by the ghosts of her mother, a disabled sister she hardly knew and a childhood of emotional and physical abuse. These physical and psychic wounds play out in Deborah’s life (and the lives of her siblings) in the form of numerous physical and mental illnesses. Winfrey goes deep to portray this woman who despite her wounds and her weaknesses is driven by one thing: the desire to find her mother in some physical form that is not one of the monstrous things that Deborah has imagined.

But to my point: After seeing this film, understanding what I know about biomedical research, knowing what I know about Big Pharma and institutions of higher education, I now feel that reparations are in order. It is quite possible now to trace how the cells taken from Henrietta Lacks’ body have contributed to biomedical research and which procedures lead to drugs, protocols and other breakthroughs that are now the base of Big Pharma profits. The only fair thing is for those profits to be calculated and those entities who have benefited to be encouraged, if not required, to disgorge, ok donate, a sufficient portion of any profits traceable to HeLa based research to:

  1. Provide educational and medical resources for Mrs. Lacks’ direct descendants;
  2. Endow medical, biological science and biomedical engineering scholarships at Historically Black Colleges and Universities;
  3. Establish STEM programs to upgrade, improve and enhance STEM and particularly bio-science education for junior and senior high school students in economically disadvantaged communities;
  4. Publish a written apology to be posted online directed at the Lacks family and all other victims of breaches of medical ethics; and host annual symposia on ethical medical research.

Yes, I know that this seems all pie in the sky, but here’s the thing: While the exploitation of individual slaves during the antebellum period of American history is challenging to establish, the use for profit of the very cells of one African-American woman, a descendant of slaves, can be identified for Henrietta Lacks. Who knows, maybe that one kid who gets turned on to science, earns a scholarship to college and eventually medical school, might be the person to find the cure for cervical cancer. Her name just might be Henrietta or Deborah.

Veteran Cat Servant

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