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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Scientists and the Lackses project different meanings onto HeLa cells, highlighting the tension between scientific values and personal values. The scientific community views Henrietta’s cells as objects for research, something politically neutral that they can test, use, and alter in any capacity for the sake of scientific progress. However, to the Lacks family, the cells represent Henrietta. Deborah worries about the tests scientists conduct upon HeLa cells because she envisions them causing pain to her mother. When Deborah explains to Lengauer that the cells have helped science, but they are also her mother, she means that talking about the cells as if they are only objects of study ignores that for Deborah they will always represent a mother she never got to know. Furthermore, to other members of the family, like Bobette and Lawrence, the cells also represent white science robbing them of parts of their bodies, a part of their family, and of fair financial compensation.
The red nail polish Henrietta wore at the time of her death comes to symbolize her personhood and individuality. When she sees Henrietta’s nail polish during the autopsy, Mary Kubicek fully realizes that the HeLa cells came from a living woman. Red nail polish is indicative of Henrietta’s personality, agency, and personal taste, which means Kubicek cannot dismiss it as just part of a corpse. Kubicek’s realization causes her to picture Henrietta alive for the first time because painting one’s toenails is an intrinsically human action. The nail polish takes on a different meaning for Henrietta’s family. Because the nail polish is chipped, Sadie sees Henrietta’s toenails as representative of her decline. Immaculate nail polish is an important part of how Henrietta presented herself, something she took pride in. Therefore, for Sadie, Henrietta’s unseemly polish symbolizes a loss of personality due to weakness and illness.
Deborah places great importance on the Bible she inherits from Henrietta because it represents Henrietta as a loving mother untouched by the cold, impersonal legacy of the HeLa cells. In the unused footage from the BBC interview, Deborah reveals that she keeps a lock of Henrietta’s hair in her mother’s Bible so that she can feel close to her. For Deborah, the Bible is a symbol of her mother’s presence that is tangible and personal. Unlike HeLa cells, which are stolen and distributed without the Lackses knowledge or consent, Henrietta’s Bible remains safe with her family. The Bible and the lock of hair bring Deborah comfort when she is sorrowful, whereas the cells have mostly caused Deborah and her family grief and stress. Deborah can touch the lock of hair whenever she wants, unlike the cells, which she doesn’t own or have access to. Furthermore, the lock of Elsie’s hair accompanying Henrietta’s in the Bible serves to remind us of who Henrietta was as a person and as a mother. Deborah’s attachment to Henrietta’s personal items highlights the reality that many in the scientific community and media don’t even know Henrietta’s correct name, let alone the experiences of her family.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks!