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Yes, of course a Henrietta statue

SoVaNow.com / June 10, 2021
Behold Halifax County’s visible connections to the most significant person who ever lived here.

A highway marker and a gravesite headstone.

Meaningful and appropriate signifiers both, but woefully inadequate to the task of properly honoring the individual in question and cementing the county’s rightful place within her formidable moral and intellectual legacy.

We’re of course talking about Henrietta Lacks, whose memory has once again pushed its way to the forefront of today’s debates. On Monday, Halifax/South Boston NAACP and One Community representatives Barbara Coleman Brown and Hope Harris-Gayles approached the Halifax County Board of Supervisors with the idea of erecting a statue of Henrietta Lacks at the Courthouse square, and hearty cheers and hoorahs for them.

The supervisors’ seeming support for the idea also is gratifying, and I for one am firmly convinced this project can be carried out at minimal cost to the county through private means — with support of foundations, businesses, philanthropy and other potential sources of funding for the commissioning and placement of a statue. There are a few other Henrietta Lacks memorials around the U.S. (Did you know the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom has commissioned a statue? I did not), but nowhere else aside from Baltimore, where Henrietta moved as a young adult to find work in the city’s steel industry, possesses a claim to her life story equal to that of Halifax County. We and us. Our little corner of the world produced arguably one of the most important people in the world.

Was any of this known at the time? Obviously, no. Henrietta Lacks was a daughter of a poor sharecropper family in a poor community whose escape to the industrial city tracked the migration that occurred throughout the South during the era of Jim Crow. (Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a great read on this very subject.) In Baltimore, Lacks toiled in obscurity just as she had done in Halifax County during her adolescent years (her family moved here from Roanoke when Henrietta was four years old), and her death in 1951 from cervical cancer was quickly forgotten to time. It wasn’t until the 2010 publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, science writer Rebecca Skloot’s luminescent book on the title character’s life and death and never-ceasing rebirth of her genetic code, that the story of Henrietta Lacks and “HeLa” cells entered the mainstream.

And now here we are.

You know the rest of the story: HeLa cells, drawn from Henrietta Lack’s lifeless tissue and spontaneously reproducing ever since, have been foundational to the development of cancer cures, the polio vaccine, covid vaccines, and too many other medical advances to list here. The discovery of a self-reproducing cell line opened avenues of medical research and development that have saved billions of lives around the world. That such wonders should arise from such lowly circumstances is no reason not to celebrate Halifax County’s connection to this story; in fact, it’s all the more reason to celebrate it. Where is it decreed that only great people can be responsible for great things?

The Great Man Theory of History is the one we’ve taught ourselves and our children, and while there’s a place for it, such a narrow approach exists in tension with the fact that Great Men do not emerge or exist in a vacuum. Our greatest president, nearly by acclamation among historians and lay people, was Abraham Lincoln. Was that because of his singular abilities and irreplaceable attributes? No. It’s because Lincoln guided the country through a national crisis like no other before or since, and did so well, if not quite as immaculately as the legends say. (I’m a huge Lincoln fan, by the way, and less typically, of Ulysses S. Grant, too.) These figures are certainly worthy of honor. But what of the common soldiers who died defending both ends of the argument in the Civil War — might they themselves, someday, have otherwise attained greatness in life? The answers lie in their graves. Perhaps no one ever nailed this dynamic, of irreplaceable men and the central myth underlying their historical importance, quite like French President Charles De Gaulle and his pithy remark: “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

Last year, as Halifax County debated the future of our Confederate soldier statue, a variation of this argument was adopted by defenders of our deplorable relic at the Courthouse Square (and, yes, I fully recognize that voters in the November referendum sided 60-40 in favor of keeping the statue, and, no, this is not an outcome that will wear well in time). What was their argument? That the statue celebrated the humble farmers and laborers who fought only to protect hearth and home, not to defend America’s original sin and most monstrous evil. Redefining the Confederate statue as a tribute to the common soldier (rather than acknowledging its true origins, as a reactionary totem of 20th century apartheid America) allows the memorial to exist in a politics-free, essentially meaningless context. But whereas something as vile as a tribute to the Confederacy can be denuded of seeming controversy, something that should be utterly uncontroversial — a proud memorial to signify Halifax County’s connection to a life that has led to cures for cancer (for crying out loud!) — is already threatening to become a wellspring of division and disunity. What’s the phrase that I’m looking for here? Oh right: shaking my damn head.

The fact Henrietta Lacks did not play an active role in the discoveries of the scientific wonders that existed within her being hardly renders her irrelevant to the outcome. Anything but. One cannot exalt the foot soldier of the Confederacy or any other cause — the Confederacy being among the worst of the lot — then turn around and argue against a memorial to Henrietta Lacks on the grounds it was her mere blood and tissue, nothing else, from whence greatness sprang. History itself is built on the unremarked contributions of allegedly unremarkable souls.

With other possible tributes to Henrietta Lacks that have been suggested and attempted in Halifax County, you can understand why not much would have come of them. Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg’s idea to rename the high school after Henrietta Lacks ran into understandable resistance from lots of people who cherish their personal connection to good ol’ Halifax County High School (or Halifax County Senior High School, as the case may be). The Halifax County IDA’s proposal to build a $50 million Henrietta Lacks Life Sciences Center at the technology park is a fine idea on paper but lacks 50 million pieces of paper bearing George Washington’s portrait to back it up.

By contrast, a statue at the Courthouse honoring Henrietta Lacks should be eminently achievable and is absolutely appropriate. Not because the figure involved was a great person. But because her life story exemplifies the historical truism that great things arise all the time from humble places, people and things — from humble little communities very much like our own. It’s been a decade since the amazing story of Henrietta Lacks captivated the world; it’s high time for Halifax County to tout our centrality to this world-historical twist of fate. To do any less is to seal the idea that we, too, are doomed to a status of lasting insignificance all our own.

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