When White Violence Is “The Canon”

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

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.

When I think about a message for students about research methodologies in gender studies, I got one goal they need to keep in mind: don’t let your ignorance get the best of you because it WILL SHINE all the way through. This means that I expect students to be able to critique someone like Skloot which requires a rigorous knowledge of how academic research has done VERY LITTLE good for communities of color but certainly a lot of harm (such research aids mostly in university bureaucracies of promotion). I need students to be able to dissect like Holloway before I ever embolden them to step into any community of color and collect some data on them! Now, I know that ain’t quite fair for an undergraduate. Holloway’s in-depth foundation in legal theory, biomedical ethics, and Black feminism make her a formidable scholar beyond undergraduates’ (or most professors’) knowledge.  However, any simpleton who has watched a youtube documentary on The Tuskegee Experiment, read even a mainstream blopgost about Marion Sims’ operations on Anarcha, or interacted with a super-basic slideshow highlighting U.S.-led experiments deliberately infecting soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners, and mental patients with syphilis in Guatemala (I can go on with list all day) can point out a deeply troubling history.  While some of my colleagues assumed I was vying to replace the canon by suggesting that students need to know and CARE ABOUT contemporary cases of research misconduct like Skloot’s book (and one might ask why that accusation was only hurled at the Black woman at the table), I did make an important realization: when it comes to research methodologies about communities of color WHITE.  VIOLENCE.  IS.  THE.  CANON. If you ain’t talking about that, then you are complicit. It is interesting that anyone would assume that I am attempting to take whiteness off the table. On the contrary, I think I take it into account quite explicitly.

Holloway’s critique of Skloots, like when I first began to follow it, offers the most compelling reminder that it is STILL Blacks and women who are most “readily rendered up for public storytelling” in our research methodologies.  (Holloway is often even too uncomfortable to even summarize Skloot’s book because it would mean participating in the very violation of this family’s history that Skloot exploits.) Gender studies students need to be reassured that there remains a kind of parasitic, violent relationship between academic research and the stories/family histories of marginalized groups that academics write. Canons, indeed!

One thought on “When White Violence Is “The Canon”

  1. Canons fire. Indeed! I love it when, in Beloved, Sethe says, “No notebook for my babies and no measuring string neither.” She’s making a claim about knowledge and research as a murderous affair.

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