The time has finally come … time to pick the first two books we (or I) will read exclusively for the blog.
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin vs The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
John Howard Griffin’s groundbreaking and controversial novel about his experiences as a white man who transforms himself with the aid of medication and dye in order to experience firsthand the life of a black man living in the Deep South in the late 1950s is a mesmerizing tale of the ultimate sociological experiment. Ray Childs’ narration is both straightforward and deeply satisfying. A skilled reader, he incorporates different dialects to help listeners distinguish among the various characters. His ability to convey a full spectrum of emotions, including exhilaration, bone deep sadness, and gut wrenching fear is riveting. Equally fascinating is Childs’ description of how Griffin’s unheard of approach to studying racial discrimination changed his personal life and ignited a storm of argument and discussion around the nation.
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
PS – I’ve read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks … it is an amazing and informative read. Truth is much more stranger than fiction.
The time has finally come … time to pick the first two books we (or I) will read exclusively for the blog.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison vs On Beauty by Zadie Smith
In the 1680s the slave trade in the Americas is still in its infancy. Jacob Vaark is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh North. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he owns a small girl in part payment for a bed debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Rejected by her mother, Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, and later from the handsome Blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives. A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart, like Beloved, it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother and daughter – a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and a daughter who may never exorcise the abandonment.
Howard Belsey is a middle-class white liberal Englishman teaching abroad at Wellington, a thinly disguised version of one of the Ivies. He is a Rembrandt scholar who can’t finish his book and a recent adulterer whose marriage is now on the slippery slope to disaster. His wife, Kiki, a black Floridian, is a warm, generous, competent wife, mother, and medical worker. Their children are Jerome, disgusted by his father’s behavior, Zora, Wellington sophomore firebrand feminist and Levi, eager to be taken for a “homey,” complete with baggy pants, hoodies and the ever-present iPod. This family has no secrets–at least not for long. They talk about everything, appropriate to the occasion or not. And, there is plenty to talk about.
The other half of the story is that of the Kipps family: Monty, stiff, wealthy ultra-conservative vocal Christian and Rembrandt scholar, whose book has been published. His wife Carlene is always slightly out of focus, and that’s the way she wants it. She wafts over all proceedings, never really connecting with anyone. That seems to be endemic in the Kipps household. Son Michael is a bit of a Monty clone and daughter Victoria is not at all what Daddy thinks she is. Indeed, Forster’s advice, “Only connect,” is lost on this group.
The two academics have long been rivals, detesting each other’s politics and disagreeing about Rembrandt. They are thrown into further conflict when Jerome leaves Wellington to get away from the discovery of his father’s affair, lands on the Kipps’ doorstep, falls for Victoria and mistakes what he has going with her for love. Howard makes it worse by trying to fix it. Then, Kipps is granted a visiting professorship at Wellington and the whole family arrives in Massachusetts.
My personal reading goal for 2013 is to read 24 books over the course of the year. Because I’m an over-achiever, and a bit indecisive, I’ve picked 48 books to choose from.
When picking the books, I went for books that weren’t on typical books to see on a reading list. So, no Autobiography of Malcolm Xor There Eyes Were Watching God. I wanted to keep it fresh and interesting. In picking biographies/memoirs/autobiographies I went for subjects that I had either never heard of, but should know or, were famous but obscure. I threw in a few books that I have read before but I thought would be good to read again with other people.
The list is separated by genre and alphabetical by title of the book. Have you read any of these books? Do you have any suggestions for future book selections?
Remember to refer to the previous post entitled “The Picking of Books” so that you are familiar with how the blog will run.
Assata: An Autobiography – Assata Shakur
Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith – Tommie Smith
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: An Informal Autobiography – Lorraine Hansberry
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lord
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: a Radical Democratic Vision – Barbara Ransby
An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad – Claude Andrew Clegg II
Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire – Carol Jenkins, Elizabeth Gardner Hines
In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. – Will Haygood
In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line – George Hutchinson
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates – Wes Moore, Tavis Smiley
A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines
A Mercy – Toni Morrison
Brothers and Sisters – Bebe Moore Campbell
Cane – Jean Toomer
Child of God – Lolita Files
Darkest Child: A Novel – Delores Philips
Erasure – Percival Everett
Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
Jazz – Toni Morrison
Linden Hills – Gloria Naylor
Mama – Terry McMillan
Native Son – Richard Wright
On Beauty – Zadie Smith
Silver Sparrow – Tayari Jones
Someone Knows My Name: A Novel – Lawrence Hill
Tambourines to Glory – Langston Hughes
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man – James Wheldon Johnson
The Blacker the Berry – Wallace Thurman
The Salt Eaters – Toni Cade Bambara
The White Boy Shuffle – Paul Beatty
Third Girl From the Left – Martha Southgate
Tumbling – Diane McKinney-Whetstone
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day – Pearl Cleage
Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin
Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man – Harold Battiste
A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa – Howard W. French
Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism – Bell Hooks
Black Power: The Politics of Liberation – Stokely Carmichael, Charles V. Hamilton
Brotherman – Herb Boyd, Robert L. Allen
Fraternity: In 1968 a visionary priest recruited 20 black men to the College of the Holy Cross and changed their lives and the course of history – Diane Brady
Homelands and Waterways: The American Journey of the Bond Family, 1845-1926 0 Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to Present – Harriet A. Washington
Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television – Donald Bogle
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches – Audre Lorde
Slaves in the Family – Edward Ball
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
I have been an voracious reader since Elementary school. Reading multiple books at a time … staying up later than I should because I just HAVE TO finish it … easily dropping money on as many books as I can afford at a book store. Does this sound like you too?
What inspired me to start this blog is … myself. I’m Black, or African-American for those of you who insist that I be politically correct. While reading, every once and a while I’ll complain about not reading about characters who are “like me” or I’ll look disdainfully at the selection of African-American books at a book store. No offense if you like “urban fiction,” but I don’t. Then it hit me! Take the time to search out books by and about Black people. They exist … you just need to work a little bit harder.
So that’s what I’m doing. I’m working a little bit harder to read the types of things that I want to read. Consider this website like a casual book club. I hope to reach other readers of all backgrounds to want to read good books and have good discussion. A book is always better when you have someone to talk about it with after.
Over the next couple of posts I’ll put up the books that I’m interested in reading of the course of 2013 and a post about how this blog will run ( I need some time to finish setting up all the infrastructure).