Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 16

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 16

"Spending Eternity in the Same Place" (1999)

  • We're back to Skloot's first encounter with Cootie. He tells her that nobody talked about Henrietta after her death, especially because of a taboo about talking about cancer.
  • He tells her to visit Henrietta's cousin Cliff, because he'll know more.
  • Cliff takes Skloot to Henrietta's burial place and the old "home-house" where Henrietta grew up and started her family with Day. It's in ruins at this point.
  • Skloot wanders through the house and finds some artifacts, including a woman's shoe which could have been Henrietta's.
  • The cemetery has stones, but not for everyone buried there. Cliff says that they used to mark the graves with a rock if they didn't have money for a proper stone, but that the land had been bulldozed.
  • And the graves were now one on top of the other as the land ran out and the people kept coming.
  • He shows her Henrietta's mother's grave and Skloot realizes that Henrietta was only four when her mother died.
  • Cliff says that Henrietta was buried near her mother but that her grave wasn't ever marked with a stone.
  • He also tells her that he doesn't understand anything about the HeLa cells, except that he knows they're still living even though Henrietta's not.
  • Cliff explains that there are white relatives buried in that cemetery as well as black ones. He observes that despite their differences they're all sharing the same eternity.
  • Skloot gives us a summary of Henrietta's family tree.
  • Highlights: Henrietta's great-great-grandmother was a slave on a tobacco plantation; her maiden name (Pleasant) was given to them by the slave owner; her maternal great-grandfather was the white owner of the plantation.
  • His name was Alfred Lacks, and by the time he died, he divided his land among five black heirs. He had no other heirs besides. Albert's bro Benjamin sued to regain some of that land.
  • The courts divided the land "equally" between the white and black members of the family.
  • Lacks Town, where Henrietta lived and had her family, was the result of that land division.
  • Skloot says that although race was present in every conversation, people in Clover didn't think it was a big deal. And yet poverty and discrimination was everywhere.
  • She visits with Carlton and Ruby Lacks, white descendants of the same family as Henrietta and Day. They deny that they're even part of the same family.
  • Ruby tells Skloot that the black Lackses have the same name only because they were slaves on her ancestors' plantation.
  • Gladys, Henrietta's sister, tells Skloot that black and white Lackses don't mix. This reminds her of the youngest sister, Lillian, who has light skin.
  • She explains that Lillian had won the lottery and became suspicious when people started asking questions about Henrietta.
  • Because of her light skin and her marriage to a Puerto Rican man, Lillian decided to pass as Puerto Rican.

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