Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Skloot contextualizes Henrietta’s story with other historical examples of scientific racism in order to explain the Lacks family’s fears, and to demonstrate that the dehumanization of black patients is a chronic problem in the United States. As one of the justifications for slavery was that black people were less human than white people, white doctors used enslaved black people in cruel medical experiments. This practice defined black people as acceptable collateral damage in experimentation, and the vestiges of white supremacy continued to affect medical practice. For example, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and Hopkins’ research on criminality in Baltimore’s black children not only harmed patients and violated their rights, but the experiments were also based solely on racist beliefs. Although Howard Jones and others insist Henrietta’s race didn’t affect her treatment, the context of scientific racism prompts suspicion. In the 20th century, many doctors believed using public ward patients as research subjects was fair payment for the treatment they received. Jones himself notes that many patients in public wards were from the large poor black community near Hopkins. We can infer that the practice of taking a patient’s cell culture without their knowledge or consent disproportionately affected black Americans like Henrietta.
The extensive racialized poverty that the Lacks family lives in underscores the injustice of what happened to Henrietta in several ways. When Henrietta was a child, the Lacks family’s only source of livelihood was farming the land they had once been enslaved upon, which meant that Henrietta had intense exposure to the carcinogens found in tobacco plants. While the tobacco may not have been the source of her cancer, her childhood on the farm is symbolic of the unsafe conditions in which the Lacks family had to live. Similarly, the steel plant in Turner Station was meant to offer opportunities for its black residents, but the unsafe working conditions exposed Day to asbestos. Furthermore, due to poverty and racial segregation, the Lacks family could only get quality medical care at the public wards of Johns Hopkins, which considered using public ward patients as research subjects to be a fair trade for their care. When Skloot discusses John Moore’s lawsuit over his cells, she notes that the Lacks family couldn’t afford legal counsel. While the world has benefited from HeLa cells, the Lacks family still cannot afford medical bills for various conditions, which have been caused and exacerbated by racialized poverty.
Exploitation and Cons
Ever since Henrietta Lacks first went in for her cancer treatment, the Lacks family has been subject to exploitation, which has left them unsure of whom to trust. The initial taking of Henrietta’s cells without her consent, permission, or understanding begins this pattern. The doctors then pressure Day into giving permission for them to do an autopsy by telling him it could later help his children. While not a complete lie, their true motivation is to conduct more research on Henrietta. When Victor McKusick wants to use blood samples from the Lacks family for more HeLa cell research, neither he nor his research assistant take the time to explain their project in depth or obtain informed consent from the Lackses, leading them to believe the blood draw is for their personal medical benefit. Journalists also take advantage of the family in pursuit of a buzzy story, as in the case of Michael Gold, who publishes Henrietta’s medical records without permission. Other people, like Sir Lord Cofield, claim to want to help the Lacks family get justice, but instead attempt to swindle them. This continued exploitation contributes to the family’s sense that everyone except for them has benefitted from Henrietta’s cells.