Tuesday, October 12, 2010

History 900 Responds to the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

We are a seminar of graduate students in US history, mostly in our first semester. Because we are preparing to be professional historians, we may have read this book differently than other audiences. In our discussion, we focused less on the aspect of professional ethics in science and more time exploring how Skloot told her story, placing the story of the Lacks family within the broader context of the history of science. We almost never agreed in our response to any particular question, so here we present a range of our responses rather than our singular ‘take’ on the book. We hope that others will find the issues we raise to be of interest.While Skloot focuses her attention on the issue of professional ethics in science, we spent a lot of time discussing her own professional ethics as an author and, more specifically whether she should be held to the standards of a journalist, a historian, or an altogether separate standard.This question is complicated by the fact that her day to day profession is somewhat of a hybrid.She has worked as a journalist for a wide variety of magazines. Her book describes her as a “science writer” who has taught “non-fiction in the creative writing departments” at several universities and as a blogger. There was a discussion of how Skloot’s background as a science writer left her somewhat unprepared for the challenges of writing about issues pertaining to race and class. “How well,” several of us asked, “did she handle her responsibility to the Lacks family both during the research process and in the writing of the book?”

Our responses were decidedly mixed. One person pointed out that Skloot made the Lacks family central figures in the book. Working class blacks are usually ignored in texts; they don’t have a voice. Skloot, by keeping their experiences central, gives them a voice. She also gives examples throughout the work of how African Americans and the Lacks in particular have been mistreated. Another participant agreed: Skloot used small stories to create a context to guide readers’ understandings of working-class African Americans’ place in the story. Others built on this point, noting that the book reveals the education and information gap between different people in the United States, a gap largely determined by economic class. People speak almost separate languages, all the while living around the corner from one another in a city like Baltimore. It is a commendable act to bring this issue to light, and it shows a degree of respect for the Lacks family and their personal experiences.

On the other hand, many people (sometimes the same people) had objections or felt uncomfortable with some of Skloot’s decisions as a researcher and writer. One person pointed out that Skloot called Deborah and others in the Lacks family almost daily for a year—a kind of pressure that could be considered harassment. Another recalled that Skloot’s inquiries caused Deborah real pain and even jeopardized her health. Should she have continued? Others felt uncomfortable with how central Skloot herself was as a character in the story and thought it was a bit self-indulgent. Does Skloot, as both character and narrator, claim the voice of ultimate moral judgment? One person argued that by making herself such a significant character, Skloot implicitly cast herself as different from the rest of the scientists and journalists who had exploited the Lacks for their own gain. Does Skloot thereby reinforce the class and race privileges that allowed her to write this story, rather than someone from the Lacks family or community? Someone suggested that the story of her interactions with the Lacks family could have come in a foreword rather than structure the story. Others countered that scenes showing how hard it was for the family to talk to Skloot were essential to explaining the gulf between the Lacks family and the science community. Such scenes uncovered the material and psychological consequences of the history of scientific exploitation of African Americans, and depicted the family as complex human beings rather than as two-dimensional victims.

The other topic we discussed a great deal was, how does this book compare and contrast with a more academic style of writing common among professional historians? Most obviously, people pointed out the lack of academic-style footnotes. How we felt about the lack of footnotes, however, differed quite dramatically. Some people felt this issue made it difficult to take the book seriously, because points could not be verified or further examined. One person noticed that Skloot promised that fuller documentation would be available on her website, but perused the website and did not find it. Some accepted Skloot’s account of the Lacks family, but felt that footnotes were imperative to reveal how Skoot put together histories of Henrietta’s hometown and African Americans’ relationship to medical science. Another person noted that footnotes are part of what makes scholarship collective; historians not only use footnotes to verify sources but also as a means of taking an investigation further. Others defended the lack of footnotes, saying that the book gives immediacy to voice and speaking, and the humanity of the book is found in this quality. Footnotes would add meaning and context to the text, but would interrupt this immediacy. This immediacy is itself a sort of "truth claim" that resists critique. As scholars in a tradition that emphasizes, indeed glorifies, contextualization, we may be upset by how Skloot's story defies our interrogations. We had an interesting discussion about how different readers establish the believability of a text. While many distrusted Skloot’s book because of its lack of notes, others found Skloot imminently trustworthy because of how she wrote about herself and the Lacks.


This led to a related conversation about what we can learn from Skloot as a writer of history and how we might endeavor to be “public historians” or “public intellectuals” or to reach a wider audience than a specialized academic one. To achieve public intellectual status, academics may make conscious decisions to write in a more provocative, more quotable, and ultimately more marketable style. We were divided about whether attention to marketability was a good or bad thing. Some felt that Skloot took liberties with source materials and made overgeneralizations to make her story more readable. We also talked about how effective it was that she followed the rule, “show, don’t tell.” We noted that in a specialized academic book, the thesis or point is expected to be very clear. Few historians end their books, as Skloot does, by telling their readers that it is not clear how they should feel about the information provided, but several of us liked the openness of this approach. Though racism is a central theme, Skloot does not discuss it in her introduction or afterward.

Giving contexts for actions and experiences is key to the historian’s craft: context provides narrative and analytical perspective. One of us noted that Skloot builds contexts by telling stories about conversations or events. Some noted that she did so by making up scenes and dialogue in ways that historians generally do not, though we also noted several instances in which historians have done so, precisely to create a more engaging read. By building her narrative around a thoroughly human story, one that is pregnant with real world ethical and political dilemmas, Skloot reminds professional historians of the power of their prose as an agent of moral inquiry. In a similar vein, one of us noted that Skloot, also like professional historians, has a commitment to creating new sources that will provide insight into the past.


Skloot’s use of a personal story to make a larger point can be an essential tool for relating the past to the present. Just as Skloot starts with the story of Henrietta and moves outward, encountering themes of racial injustice, medical ethics etc., so too our training as historians could start with a grounding in historical methodology and move outward, exploring the many styles and aspects of good writing. We look to expand our professional training by examining History in Public and the role that new technologies may play in expanding the reach and benefit of historical analysis. However, we may overlook the significance of classic forms of communication, and we seem to take for granted that we are all good writers.

Submitted by Nan Enstad, Professor of History, UW Madison, for her History 900 Seminar

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Crystal X Asli said...

I like your articles about Our responses were decidedly mixed. One person pointed out that Skloot made the Lacks family central figures in the book. Working class blacks are usually ignored in texts; they don’t have a voice

November 5, 2014 at 4:30 AM  

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