The readings and the clip that we watched in class on Henrietta Lacks, her immense importance to the scientific community, her lack of recognition, as well as the interesting questions surrounding the harsh racial climate of the 1950's made me, as an english major, think immediately of Phillis Wheatley, who was the not only the first African American to be published, but was also the first African-American woman to be published. As an African-American writing around the time of the American Revolution, one the most pronounced eras of hipocritical social theories surrounding emancipation and liberty from within a slave society, she was celebrated as one of major poets of the American Revolution, and gained her freedom through her poetry. And yet she died, alone, poverty-ridden, during childbirth in a delapidated shack in the poor neighborhood of Boston.
I think these two African- American Women of intense importance must be compared for both were important in the context of racial theory. Here we have two women who, despite the immense importance to American and scientific history, died in relative obscurity.
Racial Theory has taken many forms throughout history, and these two examples, as seen through two different lenses, respectively, offer an interestingly similar story. Phillis Wheatley was the most potent argument against racial theory in revolutionary/antebellum America, which spouted African-Americans as being mentally incapable of learning to read, write, have feelings, or have any other higher mental functions. When she first published her poems she was fifteen years old, and her poems featured introductions from prominent white men of Boston, ensuring audiences that an African American had indeed written the poems, and that were worth reading.
On the other side of the spectrum, Henrietta Lacks was born into the stultifying environment of racial segregation and institutional poverty, the latter of which her family still suffers. And her amazing contribution to medicine was not recognized until much after her death. Thus two incredibly important African American women died, their immense contributions to American society having changed veritably nothing, with the dominant racial theories persisting. Interestingly, someone mentioned in class on Wednesday that a possible reason for "keeping secret" the origins of the HeLa cell was due to racism and the possible denial of its usage by doctors and patients alike.
Contrary to Wheatley's poems, which needed proof from prominent white men that they were in fact poems of some merit, and induced white audiences to read them, the cells of Henrietta Lacks didn't even get this treatment, despite the 175 or so years separating them. Simply, after that many years, and after Wheatley and many other African American writers, scientists, etc. have proven wrong the theories of racism, time and time again. Yet, the same forces were at work in the lives, and more importantly the deaths, of Wheatley and Lacks, one of "scientifically proven" racial theories, supression, and forced obscurity.