In preparation for a group discussion about critical research methodologies in gender studies, I went back and looked at hours of footage from Rebecca Skloots, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as other research about race, Black women, and medicine/science. I had been particularly inspired by Karla Holloway’s ability to relentlessly give Skloots DA BIZ’NESS for constructing a research study for mainstream audiences that, in fact, re-enacts violence against the Lacks family, a Black family who for the most part still live in abject poverty. Henrietta Lacks, known by the medical/science industry as HeLa, was a poor Black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 for developing what we now know to be the vaccine for polio and the central tools for cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Her cells have made billions of dollars but her family, then and now, do not even have health insurance. Meanwhile Skloots enjoys the big dollars from Olympic-styled endorsements, media showings, and a New York Times bestseller. Despite her economic wealth, I wouldn’t ever want to be Skloots given the criticism, rightly deserved, that she has endured by formidable critics who link the central fetishization, exoticism, violence, and exploitation of her research/methodology to the kind of minstrel show we get on Bravo television when Black women’s bodies are the subject. Whew, so glad I ain’t Skloots! I wouldn’t even be able to wake up in the morning with a morsel of self-respect.
In a previous semester, I asked my students a question I wanted to hear their thoughts on. They answered this question on their websites/ePortfolios as reflective essays: what was the best piece of writing that you did this schoolyear (in any class) and why do you call that your best? The students’ answers astounded me, particularly the way in which those students most interested in social justice (and I mean social justice as a process and life commitment, not a graded school assignment) answered so fundamentally differently.
Those students who I would most call activist and conscious talked about what they learned about the world and themselves; how they had committed to social justice issues more than ever before; why they saw themselves as people who had creative and/or political agency to change the world, help their families, and/or write in a way that reached and impacted people. Some of them even wrote this final reflective essay as a letter to their mothers explaining their gratitude and respect or as a letter to a younger version of themselves explaining all that they would soon become if they could just survive that current, ugly moment.
But then there were those other students: “the good students.” I was bored by them, quite honestly… and disgusted. A large number of them, who had the same teacher the semester before, talked about assignments where the teacher changed every word, gave them a new research topic when the teacher did not like the topic they selected, told them what arguments to make in every sentence, changed a word almost every line, corrected every single mistake, drew arrows all over their papers showing them where each new paragraph and idea should go. Continue reading