Study Guide

Courtney "Mama" Speed in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

Courtney "Mama" Speed

When Rebecca Skloot finally finds Speed's Grocery in Turner Station, she learns of Courtney Speed's reputation as a community activist and the social glue of the neighborhood. One of Courtney's "sons" tells her, "Oooh, I look up to Mama—she tough! She keep Turners Station in line, boy! She fears no man!" (71)

Courtney Speed and her grocery and beauty shop are cornerstones of the neighborhood, with Courtney herself acting as mentor and "spiritual mother" to many of the children there. She'd learned about Henrietta's cells when the BBC showed up in Turner Station after they learned about Henrietta from Roland Pattillo's symposium.

She takes pride in her neighborhood and works hard to get Henrietta, who was a resident of Turner Station, the respect and recognition she deserved for her part in scientific advancement. Speed partners with sociologist Barbara Wyche to create a foundation and museum of health history in Turner Station with Henrietta at the center of it all.

But it's not true that Speed fears no man. Although she braves the vandalism and violence of her neighborhood with great calm, she's pretty darn rattled when con man Keenan Kester Cofield comes on the scene and threatens to sue her for all she's worth. She's also put off by encounters with Deborah Lacks, who's having a hard time coping with media attention and Cofield's wild behavior.

At first, Speed's afraid that Cofield sent Skloot to talk to her. But eventually, she sees things differently:

She looked at me for a long moment, then her face softened. She took my hand in one of hers, and touched my face with the other.

"I like your eyes," she said. "Come with me." (73)

Speed had decided who really sent Skloot: the Lord.

"[…] I'm glad He sent you," she said, pointing to the sky. "This story just got to be told! Praise the Lord, people got to know about Henrietta!" (73)

Scoot is hugely helpful to Skloot. She drags her to the library and gets a tape of a BBC documentary about Henrietta, The Way of All Flesh. She plunks her down in a chair in her beauty parlor and tells her to watch it. Skloot had been trying for months to get a copy of that tape.

Courtney Speed is still advocating for the preservation of Turner Station as a historically important neighborhood and still raises awareness of Henrietta's contribution to medical science.

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