No matter what I post, I always make a point of mentioning my poetic hearth, or home, or launching pad, or cafe… I am proud to be a member of Poets United, and all my poems are backtracked there to a constantly updating feed. Today, they had a specific prompt, and so I was thrilled to write something just for them.


Blacks abused, a story
that seems to have no end.
Obscure beginning for HeLa.
One woman’s cancer cells were
scraped away as she lay dying, more
from the treatment than the cancer itself.
Johns Hopkins implanted radioactive rods in
her womb until all inside her turned bomb-black.
The cells taken from her uterus, much like a skin shed
in death, were put on the market and migrated from lab
to lab until they were all over the world. But no one told
her family, nor did they give them any of the money… quite
a considerable amount, not to mention the intellectual property.

Henrietta Laks was used, over and over, by whites, for profit.
First, in life, by cruel poverty, segregation, inability to
care for her own, to see to her kids’ well-being, to their
education; one daughter was institutionalized, as she had
married her first cousin, like folks did back in those
days. Her cervical cancer was detected far too late;
she died so young. Then, after her death, her
“immortal cells,” truly a medical miracle,
proliferated without anyone’s say-so,
and only by chance did her daughter
find out Mom had been to outer
space, survived bomb blasts,
outlasted most of her kin,
but only bits of Mom.
Black folks always
feared Johns

© 2012 Amy Barlow Liberatore/Sharp Little Pencil
Poets United’s Think Tank Thursday asked us to write a poem based on a book. Henrietta Lacks is the subject of a book I recently read, called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. On the cover is a picture of a vibrant, fun-loving girl, dressed up to go out on the town. A few short years later, she was dead of cervical cancer… but scientists “harvested” her cells, which seemed to have immortality; whatever they did to them, “HeLa cells” (they used the first two letters of first and last names of all patients from whom they harvested cells, and all without family permission or compensation) survived and proved to be hearty. Of course, members of the scientific “brain trust” also perpetrated other atrocities on Black Americans, including the infamous Tuskeegee sterilization of thousands of fertile men and women, in hopes of narrowing the race to “controllable” numbers.

Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, eventually teamed with the book’s author, Rebecca Skloot, a white writer who gained Deborah’s trust. Together they embarked on a journey back in time, tracing the history of both the woman Henrietta and the HeLa strain of cervical cells. Read it – horrifying and fascinating history. For more on Henrietta, and to view the picture mentioned in the poem, click HERE. Peace, Amy