The Ever-Waking Mothers of Our Womb

Blog 36 Waking Henrietta
Image: “Open Wide” by Katrina Pallon, oil on canvas, 2015

In Memory of Henrietta Lacks, Anarcha Wescott, Betsey Harris, and Lucy Zimmerman

‘In 2001, 50 years after Lacks died, her daughter Deborah visited Johns Hopkins Hospital and closed her eyes as a cancer researcher opened the door of his floor-to-ceiling freezer. Deborah then opened her eyes slowly, and stared at vials of red liquid. “Oh, God,” she gasped, “I can’t believe all this is my mother.” When he handed her one, she said, “She’s cold,” and blew on the tube to warm it. “You’re famous,” she whispered to the cells.’ – from Overlooked – Henrietta Lacks

“I think the story Anarcha and Lucy and Betsey would tell me would not start with Dr. Sims. I think the story they would tell me would be about their lives as enslaved women. It would begin there. It would begin how there were times where if that baby had survived, that the baby would have been taken away from them. They would talk to me about how, as being black women, their bodies were used sexually, that they did not have consent and that what happened to them with Sims was part and parcel of what their lives were at that particular time. But I think the other thing they would want us to know is that they were human beings and that they also deserve their story to be memorialized. There are portraits in medical schools of Sims. Where is their story?” – from Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology

He cut you open / lumens wide
and necklike passage sutured / see the red doors
of your truncated vine / the red doors
wedged by masters over their slave girls
when masters built tiny rooms
for easy midnight access
and theft of cells
morphing granddaughters and
great-granddaughters into wounds they cannot
explain except finding themselves under
the knife two centuries later / under
bright lights and cold instruments
tethered by paper masks or iron bars /
fleshly homes of future daughters and granddaughters
cut open / but please
/ if you could ask /
do not cut me open but find me herbs
that will make me whole again / scoop up the flesh of
Mother Earth and plant Her in my bones / heal
and feed me / what my Great-Grandmother
and your Great-Grandmother would’ve sworn by
/ do not deepen my belly scars
/ but please

/ if you could ask /
do not cut me open / but let my soul
stream confetti in flame
/ the kind of flame

masters tried to quash at the stake / but your cells
would not die / your DNA
would not / your cervix
would not / your uterus
would not / centuries later
you live
in a trillion vials and veins
between here and the Atlantic
the Pacific and even Antarctica
still whispering
I am here.

Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Anarcha was subjected to 30 experimental surgeries. Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine
BYP 100 activists
BYP 100 activists during a protest in front of the J. Marion Sims statue in New York City on August 19, 2017. Photo: BYP 100 Facebook Page
Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks in a family photo. HeLa, the cell line named for her, has been at the core of treatments for ailments like hemophilia, herpes, influenza and leukemia. Lacks Family/The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, via Associated Press

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