Racialicious

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Skloot practically announces her racism on the first page of the book when she insists that her writing “is a work of nonfiction. No events have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated” (xiii). We can all agree that this is an impossibility. Skloot was not there to witness majority of the important events that she recounts. While she has ostensibly taken pains to write objectively – stringing together “more than a thousand hours of interviews with family and friends of Henrietta Lacks, as well as with lawyers, ethicists, scientists, and journalists”…” and “archival photos and documents, scientific and historical research, and the personal journals of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks” – the style and content of the story is ultimately the result of her choices (xiii). As Salman Rushdie once wrote, “Description itself is a political act” (“Imaginary Homelands” 1982). Skloot’s “descriptions” are loaded with political implications and consequences. Indeed, the whole of the Lacks family, including Henrietta herself, can speak only through Skloot. She is the only agent. She has control over the voices – and, not completely unlike the doctors, Henrietta’s body. I offer, for instance, this painfully explicit passage:

"Henrietta went to the bathroom and found blood spotting her underwear when it wasn’t her time of the month.

"She filled her bathtub, lowered herself into the warm water, and spread her legs. With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta slid a finger inside herself and rubbed it across her cervix until she found what she somehow knew she’d find: a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening of her womb." (15)

If nobody was in the bathroom with Henrietta, or even knew that she was in there, how can Skloot know that Henrietta “spread her legs” and “slid a finger inside herself”? My freshmen giggle and blush when this passage is read aloud. It’s not that they find it humorous; their giggles and blushes are evidence their negotiation of a body on display. Not a fictional body, according to Skloot. It is a real one. And so my students feel, I venture to say, a bit like a voyeur caught in the act.

It should be clear by now that my criticism goes beyond the basic question of “who is allowed to write the other?” It is about how we write the other. We have to consider the assumptions we make not only about the other but about ourselves and our author-ity has writers. In her afterward to the Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison recounts her own dilemmas with representing her black characters and their language; she writes “My choices of language (aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black American culture into a language worthy of the culture” (Afterword 1994). Morrison obviously questions her position as a writer and her relationship with both her characters and her audience. Unlike Skloot’s all-knowing narration, Morrison breaks a silence while admitting that there is always going to be a quietness. Freshmen reading Skloot’s book should know that neither David nor Deborah Lacks were able to read Skloot’s narrative; they both died before the publication of the book. Henrietta’s consent and approval has long been lost. The rest, they say, is silence.

The stark hierarchy established between Skloot and her subjects does little to convince me that Skloot truly questioned her position as the author-ity of the narrative. Undoing the racism of this book would be as simple as Skloot acknowledging the unarguable fact that much of her narrative is a lie, a work of historical fiction, by her own definition of “non-fiction.”

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