Henrietta Lacks parallels

Laura’s recent post about Rebecca Skloot’s visit to Emory on March 29 made me realize how long it’s been since I’ve posted anything here.

Skloot’s book on Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cervical cancer became immortalized as Hela cells, has been well-reviewed. In recent interviews, Skloot describes how she had to earn Lacks’ daughter’s trust, which was difficult given the family’s past experience with scientists _and_ journalists.

This reminded me of two other situations I’ve read about recently.

The first was James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Christina Davidson talks about Agee’s and photographer Walker Evans’ relationship with the Alabama farming family they described in the book. Family members reportedly felt mistreated by Agee, Evans and their successors. It seems like Davidson had to walk a path resembling Skloot’s.

A similar theme emerges from Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother photos. The children of Florence Owens Thompson, the Cherokee woman in the photos, resented becoming poster children for Depression-era poverty.


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