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Henrietta Lacks and the Question of Genre

pfischer's picture

While reading "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" I wondered if the book was a biography, a work of science journalism, or a historical work investigating structural and overt racism within the medical community. The relationship between Henrietta Lacks, the woman, and the HeLa cells, which were once part of Henrietta Lacks, serves as the emotional and scientific center of the book. The story starts with details about Henrietta Lacks, the woman. Skloot makes an explicit point to write about features of Henrietta's persona that simultaneously mark her as a relatable human subject, a woman we might know, and a specifically racialized, gendered subject in a midcentury Baltimore. The portrayal of Henrietta's identity in these two ways allows Skloot to emphasize Henrietta's humanity, and therefore firmly ground her family's anger in a matrix of humanity, religion, and corporeality. The other aspect of Skloot's presentation of Henrietta's identity as a sort of pawn in a broader biopolitical scheme and invites a political examination of racist exploitation of black bodies within the American medical system. Henrietta's body as a tool and commodity of the U.S. medical system was my reading of the text, I am interested to know if others found it more of a personal biography of the woman Henrietta Lacks or more of an investigative journalism report.

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