This is a story about an October fundraiser organized by Loyola University Maryland’s students. The event that felt like a neighborhood block party, but brought together such a unique blend of details that the result was close to surreal. Twenty-three members of Lacks family chatted with students, ran relays, and had their faces, arms, hands painted with insignia that honored Henrietta Lacks’s famous cells known by a code name HeLa. A student decorated one of Henrietta Lacks’s great granddaughter’s slender biceps with a heart and “HeLa”; another student painted words “polio” and “cloning” on the forearms of Henrietta’s granddaughter Jeri Lacks Whye.
On a sun-soaked Saturday we were at a Tennis fundraiser organized entirely by college students. Carol Nettina and other Loyola students teamed up to create a fundraising concept through Kids Play for Good, a non-profit organization that wants to inspire young tennis players to use their skills for the common good. The students wrote to the Lack’s family and invited tennis players from other neighboring universities to raise money for the family. Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks depicted the surviving Lacks family as evasive, available only after countless phone calls, go-betweens, and false starts. But that is clearly not the case these days – the family I saw was all smiles, the youngsters of the family ran around with school children from Montebello Elementary School. Carol, who volunteers as Montebello’s afterschool tennis coach, brought some of the school’s children with her to meet the Lacks family.
The organizers and the family wore green T-shirts with a motto ”Helping Good Grow One Cell at a Time.” Lawrence Lacks jokingly complained that the event organizers did not have a big enough a shirt for him. This event was world apart from the academic conference, Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture and associated Seminar, which Johns Hopkins University organized just a week ago. There were no science talks, discussions of research ethics. There were no high-powered prizes, such as the recently created Henrietta Lacks Memorial Award, which in its inaugural year went to Newborn Holistic Ministries, a charitable, grassroots organization operating in Baltimore’s Sandtown. But there was lots of young energy, movement, tennis playing, pizza and chips, sodas, and brownies that a student, David Engelhardt, had organized to bake the evening before. Sweet, so sweet, and, really, quite remarkable!
Since I had read Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and written a blog entry about its perspective to Baltimore, I wanted to learn how the book might have changed the family’s life. That was the question I asked, but, honestly, the question makes no sense to even me any more. The question was driven by my recent reading; Skloot’s colorful narration of a struggling African-American family in a racially divided Baltimore dominated my view. Lawrence Lacks, Jeri Lacks Whye, Victoria Baptiste, and other Lacks family memberswere simply so much more than I had expected. They were spirited and engaged, many of them much healthier than I had envisioned based on the book’s description of family’s battles against a whole legion of chronic illnesses.
Gentle and elegant Jeri answers my question about Skloot’s book with many positives, but her reply made clear that foundations for a better life were laid long before the book came out in 2010. She and other members of the family frequently referred to books they were reading. Jeri has just recently read to her children Marilyn Nelson‘s Fortune Bones: The Manumission Requiem, a book of poetry about a slave whose bones are in Mattatuck Museum in Connecticut. Victoria Baptiste, Henrietta’s great granddaughter, slows down with her well-articulated remarks to make sure that I have time to write them down. She mentions that Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, a book about medical experimentation and black Americans, is on her reading list. The book may have to wait a moment though, Victoria explained, because she was working full time as a medical assistant, going to nursing school, and has kids. Tracey Thompson, a family’s close friend and an elementary school teacher, was excited to learn that I was from Finland. “You have the world’s best public education,” she exclaimed. She had read about that from the pages of Waiting for “Superman,”a collection of articles concerning public education in America.
Lawrence Lacks shared news about his foundation that he has just created to benefit people suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses. David “Sonny” Lacks ran relay with the students as if he was one of them, he had boyish enthusiasm – he did not seem to be any more out of breath than anyone else. I am happy to state that the encounter with the family proved my previous, rather depressing, image of them wrong. Might it be that the literary purposes of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks drove Skloot to draw an image of a family whose life was nearly unending struggle? Or was it I guilty, extracting too simple message from the book, perhaps because of my own unrecognized biases? I will have to reflect on this. For now, let it be said: the encounter with the Lacks family proved that there must be some wisdom to actually going out, listening to people, and seeing the world with one’s own two eyes. I have done too little of that in the past, reader that I am.
Thank you for Nancy Jagelka (photographer) and Lynn Morrell (Kids Play for Good founder) for sharing pictures from the event.