Purdue has chosen this year "The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks" as the reading for its Common Reading Program. I have been invited as a panelist to speak about some of the key themes that emerge from this beautiful narrative of medicine, disenfranchisement, and social justice. Let me first say, What a great book choice for our freshmen
As I have read this book and its chapters over and over again, I am touched by the stories of disenfranchisement of those very sectors of the population who have often constituted the foundations for the development of knowledge. The power in turning human lives into bodies for exploitation by knowledge structures in the mainstream is a theme that works throughout the sub-plots of the book. In one part of the book, author Rebecca Skloot describes for the readers the process through which Henrietta's cells were removed from her body and then entered into the technologies of medicine as sources of knowledge and economic gains.
On one hand, I am touched by the story of the immortal contributions of the HeLa cells to the development of medical knowledge and medical solutions that worked toward healing and curing. On the other hand, I am haunted by the violence that was enacted on Henrietta and on her family by the very structures of knowledge that produced these solutions.
Reading "The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks" makes me wonder: How do we engage with the ethics of knowledge in the context of social justice when considering the subjective experiences of those at the margins who have been the targets of the very structures of knowledge that have promised progress and development?