Mom Launches War Against Bestselling Book About Race, Science

Rachel Bertsche
·Writer
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In her fight to get this book banned from her son’s school, one mom is calling the text “pornographic.” (Photo: Broadway Books)

A mother in Knoxville, Tenn., is challenging her son’s summer reading book, calling the non-fiction title, written by a former science reporter, “pornography.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by author Rebecca Skloot, is about a poor African-American women who died of cervical cancer. While being treated at Johns Hopkins, her cells were taken without her consent and those cells, called HeLa cells, were the first to reproduce in culture. They have been responsible for some incredible medical breakthroughs, including in vitro fertilization and the polio vaccine.

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But Jackie Sims, mother of four children, one of whom was assigned to read Henrietta Lacks for 10th grade at L & N STEM Academy in Knoxville, tells Yahoo Parenting she was “shocked at the graphic content in the book.” Specifically, she cites the description of Lacks finding a tumor on her cervix, caused by a sexually transmitted disease, in which she “slid a finger inside herself and rubbed it across her cervix until she found what she somehow knew she’d find: a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening to her womb.”

Sims says she was taken aback when she read that sentence, among a few others. “My mouth dropped,” she says. “I understand the story is about cancer and I’ve read the book, but for a 15-year-old to read this kind of graphic material — if it was a chat room and someone was typing these words, we would think it was a predator and the adult would go to jail. It’s pornography to me. I understand the context of why [Lacks] was doing this, but I’m an adult.”

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After voicing her complaint to the school district, Sims’ son was provided with alternate reading, Phineas Gage by John Fleischman. Now Sims wants Henrietta Lacks taken off the Knox County Schools’ reading list entirely.

“There’s good in this book, I’m not saying there isn’t,” she says. “But to take this material and put in the hands of a 15-year-old, it’s just too much. Knox County Schools has adopted a policy that states if there is explicit sexual content or reference to drug use — and in this book, shooting heroin is talked about — then it’s not to be used in the curriculum. They are violating their own policy. There are so many other good books out there, so why do we have this in the hands of our children?”

Author Rebecca Skloot has addressed Sims’ opposition to her book, reminding fans that Banned Book Week, which celebrates literary freedom and opposes censorship, is coming up at the end of the month. “Just in time for #‎BannedBooksWeek, a parent in Tennessee has confused gynecology with pornography and is trying to get my book banned from the Knoxville high school system,” Skloot writes on Facebook. “Fortunately many other local parents seem to disagree with her, as do other schools throughout the US. Just yesterday, I got a letter from the head of the Science Department at Notre Dame Academy in Kentucky, a Roman Catholic High School for girls, saying, ‘Our community shared experiences and had many discussions concerning the topics raised in the book. The student body and staff have learned a great deal from the story of the Lacks family, and as a token of appreciation, please accept this donation to the Henrietta Lacks (aka HeLa) foundation,’ of funds raised by students and staff. I choose to focus on those stories, and I hope the students of Knoxville will be able to continue to learn about Henrietta and the important lessons her story can teach them. Because my book is many things: It’s a story of race and medicine, bioethics, science illiteracy, the importance of education and equality and science and so much more. But it is not anything resembling pornography.”

Parents, students, and even staff at the school have publicly supported Skloot. Jimm Allen, assistant principal at L & N STEM Academy, responded on Facebook to Skloot’s post, writing, “Know that the book and teachers have the complete support from the administration of the school. It’s an amazing book that fits with our STEM curriculum better than almost any book could!” He later added, “The parent in question is still very happy with our school. She simply has strong convictions about this book that, evidently, many people do not share, including me. I would like to think that our teachers and parents come at these situations from a place of love and wanting to do what is best, even as misguided as we may think that they may be.”

Another student who read the book wrote, “I go to the school in question … where this mother has her tirade. I personally read your book last year during my sophomore year and I absolutely love the book. … We used your text in my English class in which we went into great lengths to understand all the concepts that you had [described] and we [discussed] the emotions behind the text as well. This year we will touch on your book in my biology class from a scientific biological outlook. … I support your text and I will stand with you to keep this book because more people need to read this great text.”

Sims, who is a former elementary school teacher, says that she believes in literary freedom, but that it should come with age. “There are certain freedoms that come as we get older — we don’t vote before 18, we don’t drink before 21, and our job as adults is to provide discussions for our children and help them understand and comprehend things without using the words this author chooses, and to protect what they see and do,” she says.

As for Skloot, she is celebrating what many of her fans say is the ultimate sign that she’s hit the big time. Wrote one user, “You are in some fine company. It’s always groundbreaking books that broach topics that make a small, ignorant but vocal minority uncomfortable that get banned.” Skloot’s response: “#YouKnowYouveMadeItWhen!”

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