Alondra Nelson is well known for her research on ancestry and the implications of DNA in genealogy. Her book Body and soul, the Black Panther Party and the fight against Medical Discrimination explores the way discrimination, far from being limited to the social realm, intervenes at the medical and genetic level to make sure that certain section of the population is not only stripped of their basic rights (like the right to treatment or medical attention) but also turned into an object upon which experiments and other forms of exploitation are practiced without consent. A less known facet of the Black Panther Party was their sustained medical activism consisting in campaigns meant to raise awareness about issues of medical discrimination and medical exploitation and in the construction of an underground network of medical assistance that lasted many years.
Among the countless mistreatments to which the African American population was subjected, Nelson recalls the Tuskegee Syphilis study and the story of Henrietta Lacks as examples that triggered and intensified health activism among the community.
Focusing specifically on the latter, Nelson’s talk made constant references to the context that authorized the medical team to extract cancerous cells from an unaware Lacks and to turn them into a universal medium that today has grown into a multimillion dollars business and has become essential to biological research. By contrast, Henrietta Lacks was left to die without medical assistance and her family still hasn’t received any proper recognition or compensation as of today. In fact, while the story was known by most people working in the field, it was not until Rebecca Skloot book published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that it was disseminated to a wider audience.
In order to understand why this extraction of cells was possible, Nelson observes, we must be aware of the conditions of possibility and the historical context that made this operation legally possible. Knowing that there has been a history of exploitation and that people were not silent and tried to do something about it explains the motivations behind the Black Panther proactive health activism.
This type of activism helped unveil the absence of neutrality of medicine and genetic research and sent a wave of mistrust and suspicion for certain medical practices.
The Hela cells are known for being immortal. and while Henrietta still lives in these cells, so is the infamous story behind it.