The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 2, Chapter 16 : "Spending Eternity in the Same Place" (1999) | Summary



Skloot goes back to her research story line. On Cootie's recommendation, she goes to see Cliff Lacks. Cootie says no one in Lacks Town talks about Henrietta, but Cliff was like a brother to her. Cliff has prostate cancer, lives in a run-down shack, sleeps on a bare mattress, and takes so many pills he doesn't know what they are all for. He offers to take Skloot to the home-house and the graveyard where Henrietta is buried. He mentions that he can tell Skloot isn't from Clover because she treats him just as she would a white person.

Skloot sees a woman's shoe in the house, and Cliff figures it belonged to Henrietta. He says the graves are mostly unmarked because no one could afford stones. He also mentions there are both white Lackses and black Lackses—not only in the graveyard but also in Lacks Town. The history of the Lacks family is known as far back as three white Lacks brothers, Albert, Winston, and Benjamin. Albert left land to his "colored" heirs, as did Benjamin, and the black heirs included Tommy Lacks, Henrietta and Day's grandfather. The black heirs were likely children fathered with former slaves who worked the land. Skloot goes to visit Carlton and Ruby Lacks, who are white, live a mile down the road from Henrietta's sister Gladys, have a house decorated with Confederate flags, and have never met the black Lackses, although they are related. Ruby insists they have the same name because slaves had taken the name of their master, not because they were blood relations. Gladys later says the black Lackses and white Lackses "don't mix" and shows Skloot a letter from her youngest daughter, Lillian, who married a Puerto Rican man and denies she is black because she passes as Puerto Rican.


Cliff's walk with Skloot is poignant; he tells Henrietta—wherever she may be among the unmarked graves—her cells live on. The deserted home-house with the shoe is also a reminder of Henrietta's death. Cliff says Henrietta kept the house looking good and would not recognize it now.

White Lacks family members live nearby but don't acknowledge their black relatives. Ruby Lacks and Carlton Lacks, also first cousins, deny any blood relation to the black Lackses. Their Confederate flags and Ruby's anger reveal the rift between black and white in Lacks Town, caused by racism on the part of the white faction. The racism runs deep, and persists even in black Lacks families, as Lillian Lacks ends up denying her blackness by "converting Puerto Rican." Lighter skin is considered better skin and a way to escape the fate of the black Lackses, which is poverty and poor treatment by white society.

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