Ian Fairclough

The historical non-fiction text, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot raises many issues regarding medical ethics and illustrates racial injustices and social struggles of one family. Ian has written a Literary Analysis addressing questions sparked by gaps in the story, using an interpretive lens of choice to illustrate particular elements from the text to further analyze. Ian’s essay uses the interpretive lens of culture to discover more about post World War II America, a gap he has known personally since he is not from the United States. What is most impressive about his analysis is his Careful attention to the cultural divide, not only the characters in the story, but also to his personal divide based upon lack of experience. I appreciated seeing how he addresses the various components of the text to help fill these gaps.

– Lori Hughes

An Analysis of Skloot’s “Insiders and Outsiders” in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Ian Fairclough

Rebecca Skloot offers a rich, detailed, cultural interpretive lens throughout the story she presents, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This is no more evident than in the first chapter of the book entitled “The Exam,” in which Skloot describes the medical facility [Johns Hopkins] that Henrietta Lacks would frequent. In the text (page 15), Skloot goes on to describe the top status of Hopkins within the country and then goes on to discuss, in detail, that this particular hospital would be the only facility in miles that would treat black patients. I was raised in a foreign country and I am particularly uneducated on the subject of American social and society history.  Thus, I asked myself many questions just from this one page of text:   When did such segregation occur? Why was segregation needed? Who is Jim Crow?  What are the opinions of the white society? What is the racial history of the society in this region? Skloot offers many references and generally depicts the black society being underprivileged compared to the somewhat privileged white population. In order to answer these questions, we must look at society at the time and the history that promoted this culture.

“Jim Crow‘” laws were introduced very early on in American society. These laws were state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States (“Jim Crow”). According to Skloot’s text, the era was post World War II in a time when racial segregation was being constantly challenged. The black community believed that due to their services to their country and their own sacrifices, they had earned the right to be treated as full citizens and the same as their ‘white’ counterparts.  America was a very edgy society, in a racial sense, and Skloot consistently and accurately depicts the environment at this time. Skloot is very subtle with her theme with respect to the racial class divide in this story. She uses simple observations like “wards for colored people” (31) or “colored water fountains only.” By utilizing her descriptions to portray the era and society condition at the time, Skloot clearly wants the reader to understand the overall theme of the book was set in a culturally challenging era.
The cultural era is further installed with Skloot’s characters within the story. First and foremost, the basis of the story is developed from a black woman’s perspective, Henrietta Lacks. Skloot describes Henrietta’s persona in detail and early on emphasizes the use of her photograph in her quest to decipher the life of a poor black woman that, undeniably, changed history.  Irrespective of the HeLa phenomenon, Skloot never lets the audience forget the character from whom the cells were taken.  The cultural lens can be seen in her first description of Henrietta in which she is described as a “poor black tobacco farmer.” Skloot’s prologue is an excellent example of the cultural interpretive lens; despite the science of the subject, Skloot divulges the character and almost always depicts the power of the cells related to the personal traits of their maker, Henrietta. Skloot utilizes the stature of her characters in this society quite well. Her general characterizations throughout the story expose the cultural divide. This is particularly exhibited when she describes Henrietta’s first journey of John Hopkins: “Then she [Henrietta] followed a nurse down a long hallway into a ward for colored women, where Howard Jones and several other white physicians ran more tests than she’d had in her entire life.” This sentence suitably depicts the racial divide at the time and also illustrates the stature and societal differences between black and white people.  Most of the white characters tend to be in well paid, high profile positions during the story.

Skloot’s style throughout the story endears her to the reader, inviting one to almost experience the story rather than just read it. With her generally simplistic style of switching scenes Skloot keeps the reader engaged.  I particularly enjoyed that Skloot did not bog down the pace of the story with deep description of the settings, characters, science or morals; rather, she keeps things simple. Skloot also quotes spoken words using the southern slang, thereby offering believability to the reader and effectively adding further depth to the characters. An example of this is on page 75 when Skloot describes a conversation she had with Fred Garret: ‘“Do you think them cells still livin?’ He asked. ‘I talkin bout in the grave.’ He paused, then laughed a long, rumbling laugh. ‘Hell naw,’ he said.”  This is one of many examples where Skloot adds regional voice to her characters. In this case she uses voice to depict regional accent and in this case a southern black community.

With respect to cultural lens, Skloot describes the time and place regularly throughout the story. We are introduced to small-town America in 1951, the post-World War II era, and a racially agitated society. An example of this setting is shown on page 63. Skloot describes the attitudes between patients and doctors, positing that patients would never question a doctor. As Skloot describes, “Especially black patients in public wards. This was 1951 in Baltimore, segregation was law, and it was understood that black people didn’t question white people’s professional judgment.”  This one page is a good example of setting the environment. It creates a timeline, depicts the government’s role at the time, depicts the racial divide and also states the class difference between black and white people in the society.

In conclusion, Skloot’s excellent and simplistic style of writing offers the reader a plethora of questions during each chapter of the book. Irrespective of the main science and moralistic vein of this story I found myself pondering society and culture more often than most. As mentioned previously, I have not been exposed American society and the cultural issues breeding and festering through the years. Perhaps this is the reason I find myself searching for more information on the subject. The story has exposed a subject I find myself wanting to know more about. Since arriving on these shores I have been exposed to a more aggravated racial society, something I believe we have moved on from in Europe.  I have always wondered why there is so much racial hatred and racial segregation in a community sense. Rebecca Skloot has provided me with a basis in which I can apply this critical lens in order to delve further into American history and society. She used the term “Jim Crow Era,” early on in this text. For me that could be easily unnoticed and it wasn’t until I researched that I began to better comprehend the setting of the story. In some ways it has educated me unto the attitudes I see today.



Works Cited

“Jim Crow Laws.” Wikipedia. October 28. 2015. Web. November 16, 2015.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown, 2010.


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