Animism, HeLa Cells, and Mystical Flesh, (pt 3)

This is part three; here are Part 1 and Part 2.

THE DISSECTING HALL

Yuh see dat house? Dat great brick house?
Way yonder down de street?
Dey used to take dead folks een dar
Wrapped een a long white sheet.

An’ sometimes we’en a nigger’ d stop,
A-wondering who was dead,
Dem stujent men would take a club
An’ bat ‘im on de head.

An’ drag dat poor dead nigger chile
Right een dat ‘sectin hall
To vestigate ‘is liver-lights-
His gizzardan’ ‘is gall.

Tek off dat nigger’s han’s an’ feet-
His eyes, his head, an’ all,
An’ w’en dem stujent finish
Dey was nothin’ left at all.

–From The History of Medicine, credited to “Anon” with no date.

This is part three of a discussion about the development of various strains of animist religion generally grouped under the term “Voodoo.”

Animism is, more or less, the belief that things other than people–animals, plants, tools–are infused with souls or spirits, which can put to various practical or magical uses via magic/sacrifice. Mild forms of this belief include sacrificing cigarettes or alcohol to deities; extreme forms involve eating other people to gain magic powers. The Voodoo traditions that developed historically in the US shade from the explicitly multi-deity worshiping religion of New Orleans to the “root doctors” and folk medicine beliefs of the Deep South and shade into some of the Christian charismatic movements, at least in style.

For folks who already believed that various bodily parts could be used for black magic, fear of the Night Doctors seems natural:

Night Doctors, also known as Night Riders, Night Witches, Ku Klux Doctors, and Student Doctors are bogeymen of African American folklore, with some factual basis. Emerging from the realities of grave robbing, enforced and punitive medical experimentation, and intimidation rumours spread maliciously by many Southern whites, the Night Doctors purpose was to further prevent slaves, Free Men, and black workers leaving for the North of the United States of America … African American folklore told of white doctors who would abduct, kill, and dissect, performing a plethora of experiments, referred to as “Night Doctors”. …

New Orleans had an interesting variation on the Night Doctors called the “Needle Men”. Thought to be medical students from Charity Hospital (now the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans), the eponymous Needle Men, would poke unsuspecting individuals in the arm, resulting in death.

From Gumbo Ya-Ya, 1945:

‘I sure don’t go out much at this time of year. You takes a chance just walkin’ on the streets. Them Needle Mens is everywhere. They always comes ’round in the fall, and they’s ’round to about March. You see, them Needle Mens is medical students from the Charity Hospital tryin’ to git your body to work on. That’s ’cause stiffs is very scarce at this time of the year. But them mens ain’t workin’ on my body. No, sir! If they ever sticks their needles in your arm you is jest a plain goner. All they gotta do is jest brush by you, and there you is; you is been stuck. ‘Course I believes it!’ …

In 1924 there was a Needle Men scare in the Carrollton section of the city. It was reported that these ‘fiends’ slunk about the darkest streets, sprang from behind trees or from vacant lots overgrown with weeds, jabbed women with their needles and fled. Cruel skeptics insinuated the ‘victims’ were suffering from a combination of imagination and Prohibition gin, but indignant females, of all colors, swore to the existence of these particular Needle Men.

(A man with a bayonet was arrested and the attacks stopped.)

Only a few years ago Needle Men appeared, according to reports, and began stabbing young women while they were seated in moving-picture theatres, rendering them partially unconscious and carrying them off into white slavery and a fate ‘worse than death.’ For months in New Orleans downtown cinemas, women were screaming and fainting and crying out they had been jabbed with a needle. But so far as can be ascertained, the period offered no more disappearances than usual, nor is it known that any New Orleans women strayed down the primrose path via this particular route.

Similar to the Needle Men, at least in intent, are the Black Bottle Men. The Black Bottle is reputed to be a potent dose administered to the innocent and unknowing on entry to the
Charity Hospital. Instant death is certain to follow, the body then to be rendered up to the students for carving.

The explanation for this is simple. Every person entering Charity Hospital is given a dose of cascara upon admission. Pure cascara is nearly black and when magnesia is added, as is the custom, it becomes a deep brown, the change in color causing Negroes to fear it is a death-dealing drug.

In the 1800s, it was common for teaching hospitals–especially in the South–to use black cadavers in their dissections, a practice which undoubtedly inspired fear and distrust among the black population. People tend not to take kindly to grave-robbing, after all, and where there’s a market for for dead bodies, enterprising folks of dubious ethics have occasionally taken it upon themselves to create a supply.

Likewise, new surgical and medical techniques were often tested on black subjects prior to use on whites–voluntary or paid, the subjects of medical experimentation are generally drawn from the most desperate, least able to defend themselves classes of society.

But the folks handing out cascara–a laxative–at the charity hospital probably had nothing but good intentions. Fear oft outweighs actual danger; by the 1920s, the only people going around randomly killing blacks in New Orleans were probably serial killers.

And a curious quote from the Wikipedia article:

A woman from the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks states that: “You’d be surprised how many people disappeared in East Baltimore when I was a girl. I’m telling you, I lived here in the fifties when they got Henrietta, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere near Hopkins. When it got dark and we were young, we had to be on the steps, or Hopkins might get us.” (bold mine)

“Got Henrietta”?

The woman was treated for cancer, not abducted.

According to the Henrietta Lacks Wikipedia page, John Hopkins was the only hospital around that would treat black patients. No good deed goes unpunished.

I first noticed some weird (to me) thoughts on the subject while researching the effects of MelanoTan for the post Melanin, Aggression, and Sexuality, a few of which I quoted in Black Reactions to White People Tanning:

“Research Melano-Tan Injections. … You need to see this. Whites are gearing up for the next stage in their desire for blackness and their war against us. It is very real. Why do you think we’re being kidnapped?” …

Whites are kidnapping us, melting down our organs, cutting open our skulls and eating our pineal gland in order to become “powerful” and injecting our melanin into themselves.

This wasn’t written in 1924 or 1950, but in 2013.

A commentator writes:

The blood bank won’t stop calling me and always trying to tell me that there is a blood shortage. They ask if, you could like to have your blood go to sicklwe [sic] cell children. I have found that they put a little mark on it so it is used for particular people.
They also run genetic test on your blood when you donate it and they have you sign away rights kind of alla Henretta Lacks. I’ve had one of them say that my blood helped people get well faster and that I should donate as much as possible. This has freaked me out and I haven’t been back since. I’m thinking of changing my phone number as I know they can track you through your cell phone using GPS. I don’t plan on being snatched. (my bold)

Henrietta Lacks again.

I always told my family that whenever you see missing black kids that are posted on the news or on the board at Walmart, they are in underground slave camps and will be used for experiments. They are preying on the weak.

And another on blood:

Not to forget mentioning the Rhesus Negative Blood type. Having learnt a lot about it (my mother is this blood type and I’m sure a lot of you know that it is the oldest blood type on this planet), it is no surprise to me that this, besides the melanin, could be why Caucasian ‘celebs’ are snatching up Black babies QUICK. It’s the cure. Even if the Caucasians are calling it the ‘Anunnaki blood type’.
They are trying to graft themselves back in because – and this could not be stressed enough, they’re fully aware that their time is up.

To be fair, I have also seen white people write crazy things on the subject of Rh-/Rh+ blood, because the name seems to confuse people who can’t use Wikipedia. Crazy thought is all over the place if you look for it.

This particular strain of crazy is of interest, though, because it leads us to Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was only 31 years old when she developed adenocarcinoma of the cervix. This was 1951, and cancer treatments weren’t very effective–hell, now it’s 2016, and treatment for cervical cancer still isn’t very good–and Mrs. Lacks soon died.

During a biopsy, cancerous cells were removed from her cervix and later given to researcher George Gey, who discovered that, unlike normal cells which died quickly in the laboratory, these cells had the remarkable ability to keep reproducing. Thus the “immortal” line of HeLa cells was born.

In 1954, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to develop the polio vaccines. (My dad had polio. Anyone who thinks using HeLa cells was unethical can fuck off and die in a fire.) Since then, HeLa cells have been used in thousands of experiments and been involved in too many medical advances to list.

Publicity surrounding Mrs. Lacks’s undying cell line–including the book–has led to a flurry of posthumous awards, including an honorary degree of public service from Morgan State University and induction into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, the George Gey, the guy who actually cultured the cell line, has been pretty much forgotten.

In 2013, Mrs. Lacks’s descendents were given “some control over scientists’ access to the cells’ DNA code”–two family members now sit on a six-member committee that decides which projects get to access the genetic code. Additionally, they are supposed to “receive acknowledgement in the scientific papers that result.” (Acknowledgment for what? Being related to the cell line?)

Since they share some of Lacks’s DNA, they want to be able to control what people can predict about their own DNA. I can kind of see this one, if you think the DNA might predict something embarrassing, like compulsive farting or halitosis, but we are 50+ years down the line and talking about Mrs. Lacks’s decreasingly related descendents, who do not share most of their DNA with her. Additionally, I have no idea what qualifications these folks have for determining which research should and shouldn’t go forward, and no reason to believe it will actually be based on, “Butts Disease sounds embarrassing, let’s not do that one,” vs. “I don’t like this guy’s research, so screw him.”

(We are assured, of course, that, “It’s not about money,” though when people say that, it often is. The Washington Post opines:

It’s not about money. Though many have made a lot off the cells of Henrietta Lacks, her surviving family members won’t see any of it. But her descendants will finally gain some control over how pieces of the poor black woman who died in Baltimore in 1951 are used in medical research. When scientists and doctors crave the key to the genetic code that unlocked treatments and vaccines, two family members will have a seat at the table where the decisions are made.

It’s about time.

Madame Noire reports:

It is said that the samples taken from Henrietta set the groundwork for the multi-million dollar biomedical research industry, as they allowed researchers to analyze the cells in a way that they couldn’t on living humans. To date, Henrietta’s relatives have yet to see a dime of the millions of dollars made off of her cells, but as of yesterday, they’ve gained a little more control over scientists who are given access to the cells and what they’re allowed to do with them.)

But I am not a medical ethicist; if this sort of thing makes people happier and more likely to donate cells and DNA that will contribute to medical and scientific research, then I am all for it. Nor do I have any reason to believe that the family was motivated by animist concerns–I know nothing about them. It is only interesting how Mrs. Lacks’s case gets framed in the same language and context as Night Doctors and Needle Men.

Return Part 1 and Part 2.

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