• Kim Noble Calhoun

Black Experiences in Immortal Life

I’ll start this piece with a quote from Rebecca Skloot’s book:

“In 1948, the only year figures were available, Crownsville [originally The Hospital for the Negro Insane] averaged one doctor for every 225 patients, and its death rate was far higher than its discharge rate. Patients were locked in poorly ventilated cell blocks with drains on the floors instead of toilets. Black men, women, and children…were packed into every inconceivable space, including windowless basement rooms and barred-in porches. When they had beds, they usually slept two or more on a twin mattress, lying head to foot, forced to crawl across sleeping bodies to reach their beds. Inmates were not separated by age or sex, and often included sex offenders…scientists often conducted research on patients there without consent…” (275).


Skloot goes on to note the grotesque and brutal research often conducted on those patients, some of which led to months of debilitating pain and permanent brain damage.


I find it ironic that Skloot uses the word “Immortal” in the title of her bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, particularly since the injustices black people endured (and continue to endure) in America seem to remain on an eternal cycle. We can talk about the black bodies hitting the pavement at the hands of trigger-happy cops; we can talk about the disparities in educational systems between blacks and whites; we can talk about the display of white supremacy currently exhibited in the “white” house; we can talk about California even needing to end racial discrimination based on hairstyles; we can talk about segregation in churches shushed underneath the cloak of “love.”


We can talk about a lot, but the fact of the matter is Skloot brings attention to the gross injustices inflicted upon black people far beyond medicine and patient consent. Ignorance is an unruly monster in some black communities, but this deficit, historically, has not been voluntarily. When I read about slave narratives and the eventual freedom given to blacks, I often ask myself, “Now what?” What were black people in America supposed to do when picking cotton was the only skill they were forced to learn? They were released from the sentence of slavery by law, but still confined to prisons of economic, social, educational, and racial depravity. White America owned almost everything. Blacks owned little to no land. Blacks had little to no education.

So, how do you function in a world where your skin color is condemned, your pockets are empty, and your knowledge is minimal?


Believe it or not, those same deficits still plague many black people in America. It is hard to break generational cycles of poverty and oppressive mindsets that perpetuate through facts, myths, traditions, and lies. Blacks constantly have to fight and prove themselves; some even attempt to strip themselves of racial identifiers to fit into what mainstream white America has deemed “professional” or “acceptable” in behavior or appearance.


When I think about black people crowded in The Hospital for the Negro Insane in Skloot’s book, I reflect on the door of No Return during the Atlantic Slave trade—the countless bodies stuffed in despicable conditions before being crammed into the bottoms of boats, breathing in the feces, sweat, and blood of fellow captives. I also think about blacks shacked in projects—stuffed and packed away like animals, experimented on to see how we would react to inhumane conditions. How does our death rate compare to our survival rate nowadays?


This level of suffering has followed the black community and tried to define us as people incapable of rising despite the conditions imposed by the majority to keep us suppressed. It is a continuous cycle, seemingly eternal, but we continue to rise a little quicker with each iteration despite the tactics of the majority to keep us subservient.


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