Evans High School’s fourth annual, school-wide “Wear Red to Honor Henrietta Lacks” event, was held on Friday, October 3, 2014. This celebration was intended to honor Henrietta Lacks, the amazing afterlife of her cells, and the unique and valuable role they have played, and continue to play, in numerous medical breakthroughs. We are eager to share Henrietta’s story with as many people as possible, so we hope you will keep reading to learn more about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We also hope you will join us in the future by wearing red and hosting a “Wear Red” event at your own school on or around October 4th. Included here are helpful tips and directions for hosting a “Wear Red” event at your school, plus additional online resources for more information on Henrietta Lacks, her family, and their place in medical history.
As a teacher in the Georgia Southern Curriculum Studies Doctoral program, I expected to spend four years writing rubrics and lesson plans, and carrying out quantitative studies. However, Dr. John Weaver quickly shattered that notion, informing the class that, “We are not curriculum and instruction. We do not do lesson plans, rubrics, learning outcomes, or standardized tests. We think, read, write, and talk.” Shortly thereafter, Dr. Weaver asked me if I had read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I had not read the book, I had never even heard of Lacks. I immediately purchased a copy and began to read. Right away, I was hooked.
The book opens with Lacks going to the Johns Hopkins Hospital for Negroes for an appointment with Dr. Richard Wesley TeLinde, one of the top cervical cancer experts in the country. The year is 1951: the Jim Crow era, when white-only hospitals could turn away sick black patients—and when white doctors, including TeLinde, “often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge” (Skloot, 2010, p. 29). Many scientists at the time believed that “since their patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment” (Skloot, 2010, p. 29). Following her first surgery, Dr. George Gey retained some of the cells from her tumor, without permission.
The cell sample, named HeLa, would go on to play a vital role in medical research, leading to numerous medical and biological advancements that would ease the pain and suffering of many. Nevertheless, those HeLa cells came from a real person, with a real family, living in the real world. Henrietta was a living being, a daughter, wife, mother, sister, friend, and member of a “democratic” society, but her rights and those of her family were ignored.
As I began to share the story with my students, issues of social justice moved to the forefront of class discussions. Students made connections with Henrietta as a person, and as a black woman living in a time of racism and segregation. Students began taking a stand for social justice as they discussed how they thought Henrietta should have been treated. It was obvious they felt the need to stand up for people such as Henrietta Lacks.
My biology classes decided that one such way to stand up for others would be to plan a special day to honor Henrietta Lacks. The event was called “Wear Red to Honor Henrietta Lacks” and would be planned near or on the anniversary of Henrietta’s death, October 4th. The decision to wear red was based on a touching aspect of Lacks’s story. After Lacks passed away, Mary, Dr. George Gey’s assistant, went to the hospital morgue to collect a last sample from Henrietta. When Mary saw the body, “she wanted to run out of the morgue and back to the lab, instead, she stared at Henrietta’s arms and legs—anything to avoid looking into her lifeless eyes. Then Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish” (Skloot, 2010, p. 90). Mary continued, “When I saw those toenails . . . I thought, oh jeeze, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting and painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way” (Skloot, 2010, pp. 90–91).
Wearing red t-shirts, ribbons, and beads, my students led class discussions, shared the story of Henrietta as they went through their school day, and became activists for social justice in the process. What started as an alternate approach to teaching students about cells had become a full-blown assault on the all-powerful institution of science. The students recognized and acknowledged the importance of the HeLa cells to scientific advancement, but they also understood that an injustice had been done to Henrietta and her family. They wondered if the story might have been different if Henrietta had not been black, if Henrietta had not been poor and a woman. My students were contemplating complex issues of both medical ethics and race through a multiplicity of lenses, including their own racial and cultural backgrounds. Ninth- and tenth-grade biology students were examining racism, sexism, and violations of basic human rights against the benefits of scientific innovation.
Science education should provide a space where students can examine not only scientific principles and developments, but also the stories behind the science, and the issues of social justice that impact, or are impacted by, scientific advances. Science is not simply men working in pristine, far-off laboratories; it affects each of us on a daily basis. My students are becoming the voice of Henrietta Lacks, which has been silenced and forgotten for too long, as they continue to engage with the complex interplay of social justice, racism, and science. Through students and educators, Henrietta Lacks continues to live. Her story will be shared, her voice will be heard.
Information on implementing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks into the classroom curriculum has been presented at the following professional meetings: the 2012, 2013, and 2014 Curriculum Studies Summer Collaborative held in Savannah, Georgia; the 2013 Georgia Educational Research Association held in Savannah, Georgia; and the 2014 American Educational Research Association held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At all of these sites, Random House has provided posters, novel guides, and copies of books to assist teachers in using this wonderful work in their classrooms.
PLAN YOUR OWN “WEAR RED TO HONOR HENRIETTA LACKS” EVENT
- Advertise your “Wear Red to Honor Henrietta Lacks” event starting on September 26. Hang posters throughout your school (the file for the poster is attached). Have special announcements broadcast each morning on school television, or announce the upcoming event over your school’s PA system. If possible, contact local television and radio stations to promote the event. Encourage everyone in your school to wear red on October 3 (in accordance with any school dress code).
- Hand out red ribbons ahead of time (either on October 2 or the morning of October 3) to biology students, faculty, and staff. The red ribbons will help to initiate conversations about Henrietta Lacks with students who are not taking biology.
- Distribute the instructional letter and brief PowerPoint presentation to all of the teachers in your school. Teachers throughout the school, in all disciplines, should spend a few minutes at the beginning of each class sharing the PowerPoint presentation about Henrietta Lacks with their students.
- Jazz, swing, and big band music popular in Lacks’s lifetime (such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman) can be played during lunch. Perhaps encourage swing dancing, or invite a local jazz band, or your own school’s jazz ensemble to play.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT HENRIETTA LACKS AND THE “WEAR RED TO HONOR HENRIETTA LACKS” EVENT
- “Keeping Her Story Alive . . . Evans High School Honors Henrietta Lacks”: https://rhimagazine.com/2012/05/14/keeping-her-story-alive-evans-high-school-honors-henrietta-lacks/
- Honor Henrietta: Teaching Tolerance: http://www.tolerance.org/blog/honor-henrietta-lacks
- “Wear Red October 4th to Honor Henrietta Lacks” Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/WearRedOctober4thToHonorHenriettaLacks
- Teacher’s Guide for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: http://rebeccaskloot.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/RHSklootTeachersGuideLORES.pdf
- “Cracking the Code of the Human Genome: Henrietta Lacks’ Immortal Cells”: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Henrietta-Lacks-Immortal-Cells.html
- Excerpt from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: http://rebeccaskloot.com/the-immortal-life/excerpt/
- The Henrietta Lacks Foundation: http://henriettalacksfoundation.org/
“The Lacks Family.” (2010). Retrieved from http://www.lacksfamily.com/.
Skloot, Rebecca. (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.
Click here to view photos from the event.