12 Years a Slave

I just finished reading 12 Years a Slave. I, being of African descent in the United States and educated in its Public Schools, had never heard tales of free men being kidnapped and sold into slavery. I do not know how pervasive a practice it was but, the fact that there is a written first person account of one man’s treacherous experience is enough for me to believe it happened far more frequently than documented. I am one of the fortunate generations reaping the benefits of emancipation and the Civil Rights Act. I have never had to raise a finger to fight for my education, equal opportunity, or ability to go about the mundane activities of my daily life unmolested. I can work remotely, have a flexible schedule and a reasonable manager.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be at the mercy of a cruel master; your every waking moment dictated by the whims of another human being who does not care about your health or well being. The atrocities suffered by the slaves in Solomon Northup’s novel (and visually depicted on screen in gut wrenching detail by the amazing Steve McQueen) caused me to acknowledge my privilege. It trivialized even the worst of my complaints.

I am free to wake at my leisure, travel without an issued hall pass like a school child, and can challenge authority with no fear of retribution. I am a vegetarian by choice, and turn my nose up at poor quality cuisine. I am, without exception, a free woman. I have never been poorly treated or feared for my safety. I grew up with all of my family under one roof in a loving household. The fact that slaves were not allowed to read, write or own pen and paper made their captivity all the more unbearable in my eyes. Writing is my escape. It is my release. They were not afforded even the simple pleasure of self reflection.

What is so striking, and what further endeared me to Solomon Northup’s narrative, is that he had no desire to be a “great” man. He simply wanted to live a good life with his family. To wake daily and go to work, to come home to a meal prepared by his wife and enjoy the company of his children. A modest aspiration by any measure. To breathe free. The final statement of the book is one written by a man devoid of any designs on vengeance :

 “Chastened and subdued in spirit by the sufferings I have borne, and thankful to that good Being through whose mercy I have been restored to happiness and liberty, I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps”

To have endured 12 years a slave, and come out with any semblance of a spirit is remarkable. The resiliency of my ancestors chides me silently for my ungrateful days. For taking for granted my gift of freedom. Accounts such as these challenge my perception of difficulty and endurance, and beg me to ask the question “What is my responsibility?” Surely to leave, upon my departure from this Earth, a better world than the one I inherited. I pray that I will have the tenacity to endure what (small) hardships I must encounter to carry out the mission I am tasked with, whatever it may be. I am grateful that Mr. Northup left behind his legacy so that all who read it can be reminded that freedom is to be treasured, and that we are all capable of impacting the lives of others through even the smallest act of kindness.

On Reading Cloud Atlas

“In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.” 

I just finished reading Cloud Atlas, a novel by David Mitchell. It is brilliant. I don’t use that word frivolously. I sincerely mean it. I rarely read a work of fiction and find myself congratulating the author aloud, but I did. I have stayed up far too late for the past several nights reading. I was engrossed, enthralled, absolutely delighted by the intricately woven twists and turns, and the artful manner in which he connects the disparate stories to craft a delicious scavenger hunt. I ferreted away information while reading, paying close attention to the seemingly insignificant, so that I could make the connection and piece together the puzzle determining how one tale was linked to the next. This man knows how to tell a story.

Cloud Atlas, at its core, underscores the age old struggle of the powerful and the powerless. President Lincoln understood this well when he said “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” No matter the time — future or past, present or otherwise, there will always be those that desire power and the unfortunate souls who are collateral damage in their struggle to obtain more of it. A greed driven culture of conquest requires a need to justify the evils that must exist in order to sustain that culture. If our contentment is only bought with consumption, we will be eternally hungry. Always desiring more. More power, more status, more intelligence.

“Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more”

more what?

“Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ’nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poison the soil with crazed atoms an’ donky ’bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an’ babbits was freakish birthed…human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too.”

In order for a small concentration of power to remain, a large percentage of the population must be kept powerless. To treat a person poorly, you must somehow convince yourself that they are deserving of such treatment. In C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, he posits “If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more.” and I do not disagree. You have to not only convince yourself of this, but others as well, in order for them to allow such ill treatment to continue. As Cloud Atlas explains it:

“In a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights.” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful”

The effect that such atrocities have on the perpetrators is to make them callous to the suffering of those they deem “less than,” it in turn makes them less human. But we are all connected. The thread that binds the stories of Cloud Atlas, binds each of us and just as one act of hatred will inevitably begat more of the same, it is also true that one act of kindness begets more kindness. I love a book that causes you to question the goodness of humanity to lament the evils of society, but then, to ask yourself: “what is my role?” The closing paragraph of the novel ends with such a call:

“He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

So, what is your drop?

On Reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I am not a crier. Not at movies, and certainly not at books. The first and last time a book made me cry was in the second grade, when I was reading “Where the Red Fern Grows.” This is significant, because while reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” I was brought to the verge of tears at least three times. Every now and then, a story comes along that is so powerful, that you cannot believe you didn’t know about it; such is the story of Henrietta Lacks.

The Immortal Life tells the story of the HeLa cells, the most widely used cell line in medical research, and the woman, Henrietta Lacks, who was the donor. She was a poor African American woman who developed cervical cancer in the 1950s and went to the Johns Hopkins hospital for treatment. A sample of her tumor was provided to medical researchers without her knowledge or consent, and the cells go on to live forever in infamy, while she dies, largely in obscurity. Through the telling of this story, by author Rebecca Skloot, we find out the effects that the death of Henrietta and the immortal life of her cells have on her family. I will not go into great detail about the particulars of this book because I think everyone should put it on their reading list, but I will share with you why it made me cry.

In the afterward of the book, Skloot discloses the question she is most frequently asked when talking about Henrietta Lacks, “Don’t Doctors have to tell you when they use your cells in research?” The answer is no.

Earlier this year, I found a lump in my left breast. It wasn’t of much concern to me, I had found what turned out to be a cyst in my right the year before, but upon ultrasound of this one, the report stated: “Intermediate suspicion of malignancy, biopsy advised.” When I read that, my heart skipped a beat. There is a history of breast cancer in my family, and although I do everything in my power to lead a lifestyle that will minimize my risk, it is something I am acutely aware of. When Henrietta suspects that something is not quite right, and performs a self-examination, I recall tracing my fingers across my breast in the familiar pattern. In the section of the novel when Henrietta is being tested and is later diagnosed, I could feel a connection with her, spanning the 60 years between her appointment and mine, and her anxiety was mine.

When Henrietta’s cervix was biopsied and a tissue sample given to the researchers I was bothered. Something didn’t feel right. Skloot explains this in the afterward:

When you go to the doctor for a routine blood test or to have a mole removed, when you have an appendectomy, tonsillectomy or any other kind of ectomy, the stuff you leave behind doesn’t always get thrown out. Doctors, hospitals and laboratories keep it, often indefinitely.

She goes on to say that oftentimes, the paperwork you sign prior to a procedure has a section buried in the fine print discussing what may be done with your discarded tissues post-procedure. The procedure I had done, was as follows:

Ultrasound Needle Core Biopsy – An ultrasound needle core biopsy is a biopsy taken with a needle that is introduce into the breast by guiding the needle into the mass that was picked up on an ultrasound (sonogram). The radiologist will numb the area, put the needle into the skin of the breast and launch the needle into the mass under direct vision. The radiologist will show you how the needle enters the mass on the monitor. The needle is fired and tissue is retrieved, so-called core tissues, and this tissue is sent out to the pathologist for a reading on whether it is cancerous or not.

When I had my biopsy, they took 5 samples. It was an emotional procedure on many levels. I don’t live in the same state as my immediate family. I had spoken with my mother on the phone, but she couldn’t be there with me, the nurse was the woman who held my hand. I tried not to think about my grandmother’s mastectomy or my aunt’s death, but those ghosts haunted me as I waited the week it took to receive results. The tissue that was removed was an intimate part of me, and the idea that a researcher could just take it without my knowledge was disturbing. I pulled out my paperwork and tried to see what I had signed away, what did I give permission to someone to do with my samples? I couldn’t find anything.

As the story of Henrietta unfolded through Skloot’s journey, my heart went out to the family, but especially to this woman, an unsung hero who unknowingly gave her life to save millions. Her cells were responsible for the vaccine for polio, numerous studies on cancer research, yet ironically her children could not even pay for basic healthcare. I was reminded that it is sometimes easy to dissociate the human element from clinical research, but there is a person behind those stem cells, there is an anonymous name behind many of the medical advances we take for granted. How many other stories exist, how many Henriettas? This was a story that needed to be told.

While Henrietta’s tumor was an aggressive cancer that eventually killed her, the autopsy brought me to tears, my mass was thankfully benign. I don’t know Henrietta, I don’t know her family, but I feel forever connected to her and I am not the same person for having read this book. I thank God for her sacrifice, and I will donate to the foundation set up in her honor to assist African Americans seeking to pursue a degree in medical science.

The Faintest Ink

I have a general policy of surrounding myself with people who are positive, uplifting, and challenge me to be a better person. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge a friend of mine who has reinvigorated my relationship with books. First, I must give a little background on how this love affair began…it all started with a librarian, also known as, my mother.

As a child, my idea of a fantastic weekend was to have the privilege of accompanying my mother to work at the various libraries where she was employed throughout my youth. I can recall spending hours upon hours with stacks of books, hungrily devouring the pages, sometimes reading through the night to find out how it all ended. My mother had to take away my books to get me to sleep. In recent years, my reading list has tended to outpace my ambition. I slowed to perhaps a book every other month then along came

When you live with a librarian, you take for granted the continuous stream of good book recommendations, new releases and glowing reviews, so I was delighted when my friend, announced his plan to launch a site dedicated to collective reading. I may not always be on track with the reading schedule, well lets face it I usually read the books a month after everyone else, but I know that when I get around to it the reading lists will be available and the forums are ready and waiting for my thoughts. I am currently mulling over Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita which, in short I will say, is a beautiful monstrosity. I will close with the quote gracing the front page of

The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.

My friend, thank you for tatooing your ink, I am better for it, and better for knowing you.

Next up: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

…and that’s why i love

I have been doing a lot of reading and thinking in the new year. I am reading “The 7 habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey and I am taking my time. I like to digest my reading and internalize it as I would a good meal. In order for you to follow me on the remainder of this blog post, I must first provide you the passage that caused me to sit back and carefully evaluate my behaviors toward those that I care for.

In his section on Principles of Personal Vision, Covey writes:

At one seminar where I was speaking on the concept of proactivity, a man came up and said, “Stephen, I like what you’re saying. But every situation is different. Look at my marriage. I’m realy worried. My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I just don’t love her anymore and she doesn’t love me. What can I do?”
“The feeling isn’t there anymore?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he reaffirmed. “And we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest?”
“Love her,” I replied.
“I told you, the feeling just isn’t there anymore.”
“Love her.”
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there.”
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t have love?”
“My friend, love is a verb. Love –the feeling–is a fruit of love, the verb. So love her. Serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”

Okay. Let it marinate.

Now, when I reflect on this, it says to me: If you want love, be more loving, if you want respect be more respectful…a sentiment summarized beautifully in Matthew 7:12 (do unto others…). There is nothing profound in this statement, and yet, it hit me like a ton of bricks. People are not mind readers, nor do they absorb things by osmosis. If I want someone to know that I love them, I love them. The verb. If I am thinking about someone, I tell them. When I love, I do not know how to do this any other way but to let it ooze out of every pore. I love not because people always deserve it, but because I care so much for who they are and their well being, that I want them to succeed. Because when they glow, I shine, and when they fall, I stumble, because I care.

I remember the first time I knew that I was head over heels in love. I arrived home from school on Christmas break of 1998 and walked into the house to greet my family. Sitting on the couch was my older sister, holding this tiny little person swaddled in soft pink blankets with only her cherubic brown face showing, well, that and a massive tumble of dark curls. She was so quiet and in her slumber, she appeared to me to be the closest thing to heaven on earth. The moment I saw my niece I knew I would do any and EVERYthing in my power to keep her safe and happy no matter what it cost me. I was a goner. My heart was so full of love that I thought it might burst. She could hate me, and I would love her because I had no choice. So this was love. That is when I truly understood. My parents would love me no matter how mean, disrespectful, forgetful, ungrateful, selfish, or imperfect…they would love me in SPITE of my flaws.

I was praying this morning, and I am so thankful for every single one of my friends and all of their quirks, for my family and it’s dysfunction, because they love every little piece of me, even when I do not; and so I must love them the way God loves me…flaws and all.