Tag Archives: non-fiction

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 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.

…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.