No Name, No Patent: Acknowledging the Black Women that Science Has Exploited

by Saaraa Bailey There is perhaps no greater time to consider the intersectionality of blackness and womanhood, than the transition from...


by Saaraa Bailey


There is perhaps no greater time to consider the intersectionality of blackness and womanhood, than the transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month.

It is essential that contemporary Black women sing the praises of our sisters and the legacies of our ancestors throughout the whole year, but it seems most important during the months of February and March, when our gifts and contributions are often ignored.

As a graduate student, I first learned about about Henrietta Lacks in a course that focused on special topics within social change. Through the non-fiction work,The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot discusses Lacks’ short life with the man she had loved since she was 14 and their five children—who were robbed of her presence—when she died of cervical cancer. The book goes on to detail how cells taken from Lacks before her death would lead to major post-mortem contributions to biology and medical research, of which her family was unaware for decades.

Readers are issued a graphic image of Lacks as she lay a cold corpse with chipped red nail polish and looked as if she “were filled with pearls,” describing the cancerous cells that had began in her cervix and spread throughout her body.

This image jumped off the page and cemented itself into my memory. The exploitation of this young, working-class black woman stirred a familiar medley of anger and hurt within me, as I thought of my paternal grandmother.

Somewhat older than Henrietta Lacks’ 31 years, but still young enough, my grandmother was 47 when she died. Her death would come two months after a seizure would land her in the hospital. Relaying the story years later, my father would recall how he smelled liquor on the breath of the EMT who came to pick his mother up. My father’s journey to the hospital was polluted with fear, shock, and the lonesome feeling of being the sole person who saw value in the black body stretched out on the gurney.

After diagnosing my grandmother with a brain tumor, doctors told my father that if they did not operate, she would be a "vegetable." Hopeful that surgery would improve her quality of life, he obliged. Choosing what seemed to be the lesser of two evils, my father opted for surgery that stripped his mother of her hair, but ultimately revived her motor skills. She was still unable to speak, but my grandmother wrote letters to communicate.

A few weeks later my grandmother was taken back into surgery. This time, the results would not be good. When she returned from her second operation, my grandmother was not only incapable of speaking, but she had also lost all motor function and could do nothing more than just lay in her hospital bed. She was, and would remain, unresponsive until her death.

Something had gone horribly wrong during the second operation, but no one was answering any questions.

When visiting, my father would often come to find his mother’s head bandage unchanged and leaking. And on one occasion, he came to visit and her gown was wide open, as she lay in the hospital bed.

On a beautiful spring afternoon, 27 days after his eighteenth birthday, my father returned home from school to discover that my grandmother had died. When she was buried, my grandmother wore a blue dress that mirrored the grief which hovered over my father, now a motherless young man.

Questions still linger about the doctor’s decision to operate a second time on a woman who appeared to be doing well. No explanations were ever given as to why she returned in an irreversible vegetative state. While my family never got answers, we can assume that the mistakes they made during my grandmother’s second procedure taught the surgeons of what not to do next time. My dad lost his mother, so someone else down the line could keep theirs. I missed out on meeting my grandmother, so some other girl could have an enviable relationship with hers.

To the hospital, she was most likely viewed as nothing more than a source for experimentation. She was a body to be tampered with. But to those who knew her, she was a beloved mother and friend, a source of light in a dark world of poverty, greed, and selfishness.

While their status as working class black women in the early to mid-1900s led to their humility and grace, it also made both my grandmother and Ms. Lacks ideal candidates for medical experimentation. Like Ms. Lacks, my grandmother was young, poor, black, and female. Also, like Ms. Lacks, my grandmother had a terminal illness. This added vulnerability on top of the social oppressions they experienced, and what the doctors deemed as their inevitable deaths, made them both susceptible to exploitation.

No patent, no name, no life.

Like Henrietta Lacks, my grandmother was prematurely freed from the chains of a black body and the broken promises of life in a world that was both unkind to her and largely undeserving of her value.

As women of the African Diaspora, we all suffer and sacrifice. Had any of us been born a few decades earlier, we could have easily been in the same positions as my grandmother or Henrietta Lacks: our bodies once again abused and exploited for “the greater good.”

There is the old adage that defines character as what you do if no one were to discover your deeds. As black women, we may not have a patent or a name on the seal (despite the acknowledgment owed to us), but we will always have our strong and persevering character.

So it is through this bridging of Black and Women’s history that I hold a candle to the gifts of my grandmother and women like her, the inaudible yet invaluable crafters of all that we owe so much to.

Thank you.

Photo: Henrietta Lacks

Saaraa Bailey is a regular contributor to For Harriet.

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