Sunday, May 17, 2015

Henrietta's Baltimore

It's interesting how something becomes such a part of us as a nation that with one word we all know exactly what we are talking about.  Baltimore is such a thing.  Prior to the incident involving the police and Freddie Gray, if you had said the word "Baltimore", those playing a game of word association might have said "Orioles" or "John Hopkins" or simply "Maryland."  But now?  Now, when people say Baltimore, everyone is instantly drawn into a complicated story, where the story on the surface is about one man and the police, but where the story that simmers underneath is about so much more.

I cannot justify the behavior of the rioters in Baltimore.  And I also won't pretend to really understand the uncorked anger.  My personality doesn't tend that way.  I lean towards being a ruler follower, towards trusting the police, towards grace rather than anger, towards conflict resolution rather than conflict.

But I also know that for many who live in Baltimore, their roots run deep into the soil of the city.  For many, those roots are tangled up with a lot of complex feelings connected to the past.  I finished the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about a month prior to the events in Baltimore.  It's the true story of how one woman's cancer cells became the first human cells to live outside of a human body and how those cells paved the way for so many medical discoveries, including mapping DNA.  It talks about medical ethics, since her cells still continue to be used for medical research, despite Henrietta not giving any consent for her cells to even be taken.  It questions what should happen in terms of monetary compensation for situations like Henrietta's where her cells have been sold thousands, maybe millions of times over to medical researchers, without any money being paid to her family.

It's also the story of one woman's life in Baltimore.  One poor, black woman, the daughter of former slaves, and her family, in the 30's, 40's, and 50's.  Henrietta came to John Hopkins as a last resort.  She had not sought medical care earlier because she was poor and black.  She did not understand much of what was going to happen during her treatment because she was uneducated and did not ask questions.  She ended up dying without proper pain management.  Henrietta and her family seemed to be examples of generational poverty, and at the time the author was writing her book, her family was still living in deep poverty. Her sons and daughters misunderstood much of what happened to their mother and their lack of education made it hard for them to even understand what a cell was and how it could be kept alive.  Her young daughter, who had epilepsy and hearing loss, was institutionalized at the Hospital for the Negro Insane in Maryland.  Her daughter died there at the age of 15.  It is highly likely that she was subjected to terrible living conditions in addition to involuntary medical research.

For the Lacks family, distrust for medical staff comes a bit naturally.  Henrietta was treated for cancer and died.  (Albeit that all evidence shows that the hospital treated her cancer much as they would have anyone else's.)  Her cells were collected without her permission, Henrietta seems to live on in ways her family cannot understand, and others are benefiting from this unauthorized use.  Another family member has been institutionalized and has died.  There seems to be not much that is able to penetrate the cycle of poverty and lack of an education.

Could it be that Henrietta's story is all too familiar to many who live in Baltimore?  Distrust for those who are supposed to protect you (police and medical staff) is just too easy to come by.  I do not know if the officers were wrong in arresting Freddie Gray.  I do not know if they used excessive force as they took him into custody nor do I know if they were callous in how detained him once he was in custody.  I do not know if Freddie Gray caused his injuries or if he was a dangerous criminal who would have hurt the police officers if given the chance.  I know none of those things.  I do know that reading Henrietta's story prior to the Baltimore events was a good reminder to read between the lines, to examine the perspectives that others are bringing to the table.  Most of us have never lived in Henrietta's Baltimore.

Rioting, looting, making blanket assumptions about the police: those things are always wrong.  There are no redo's for events in the past; there is no fixing Henrietta's Baltimore.  There is though the ability to consider how the past colors the present for many, creating multiple perceptions of how current events play out.  There also exists the ability to refuse to let that past hold us captive, to instead let grace abound instead of assumptions and to use that as an olive branch towards reconciliation.

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