Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Book of Negroes

When The Book of Negroes won Canada Reads I was able to buy a copy.  I read it as an entertaining story, but confess much of it was not properly understood.  I was conscious of story that stretched from African kidnappings to American slavery to the War of Independence to Nova Scotia settlement and over to Sierra Leone with some legislative impact in England.

I had met Lawrence Hill at a Human Library event held at the Hamilton Public Library.  He caught me with one of my prejudices; a black subgroup.  He did discuss this mini series which was in progress at the time, but we mostly talked of his personal history and marketing strategies which in part involved book clubs.  The mini series was a first as none of his earlier books had generated film interest.  The mini-series seemed the most practical way to convey a complicated book.

Special features of the DVD proved to be a treasure chest.  A female actress commented how she was impressed that the author could get inside female mind.  Lawrence Hill had written a few books previously mostly told from a male perspective.  He explained that he had been surrounded by strong women and he enjoyed listening to them and felt a woman's perspective would be a better way to tell the story.

Visiting his parents Lawrence picked up a book "The Black Loyalists" that had been written by a family friend.   The Book of Negroes was an actual document organized by the British Admiralty to record negroes eligible to move to Nova Scotia.  Lawrence felt Canadians although aware of slavery in the United States were unaware that it also existed in Canada.  The first slaves go back to 1628 in French Canada and did include indigenous people.  Lawrence's father, Daniel Hill, a black man had married a white woman and consequently moved to Canada.  Eventually he became the first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. 

Part of the movie was shot in Cape Town, South Africa just after Mandela had died.  Giulio Biccari, born in Johannesburg was responsible for the cinematography.  His films include  "Forgiveness" (2004),  "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" (2009) and "Black Butterflies" (2011)" and "The Heineken Kidnapping" (2011).    More on the No 1 Ladkies Detective Agency which was set in Botswana:

Many authors find it difficult to deal with criticism and the changes to their original idea.  Lawrence recognized the story had to be cut down and he had been used to criticism from his journalism career  where it was common for editors to twist his written words.  Putting his novel into a mini series meant that the message would reach more people.  The word "negro" is an awkward one that Lawrence does not use much himself, but he wanted it included in the primary title.  A secondary title "Someone Knows my Name" was used in several English speaking countries, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.  It came from something said by one of the slaves who was pleased that someone called him by his proper name.

George Washington was a slave owner and felt strongly that blacks were American property  Guy Carleton used Book of Negroes to justify taking meant.  This scene was cut from the novel, but written in the series script by Lawrence.

Lawrence had written a number of fiction and non fiction books, grabbing national attention by winning the Canada Reads contest with "The Book of Negroes."  After meeting Lawrence I read his memoir, "Black Berry, Sweet Juice" which told of how he felt growing up as a racially mixed child, his education at Laval University in Quebec City and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.  Had done volunteer work in French speaking Africa and done journalism in Toronto and Winnipeg.  A new work of fiction, "The Illegal" combined his interest in running and involvement with diabetes and a concern for migrants.  He became the first author to win a second Canada Reads contest.   Read more about "Black Berry, Sweet Juice'

Clement Virgo was the director, co-writer and producer and thus worked very closely with Lawrence.  Born in Jamaica and educated in Toronto, Clement had a long history with films as a writer, director and producer.  Reflecting a personal interest one of his award winning films was "Poor Man's Game" (2007).  He directed two episodes of "The Wire" (2002). 

Aunjanue Ellis was chosen to play the lead, Aminata Diallo   who played virtually in every scene.  Some of her other films included   "Men of Honor" (2000 with Cuba Gooding Jr.) "The Help" (2011) and           "Designated Survivor" (6 episodes 2018-19).

Lyriq Bent played Chekura Tiano, the lover of Aminata.  They had met while he was assisting slavers marching some captured to a port.  Meeting at several intervals personifying how slave owners kept lovers separate from one another.  Born in Jamaica and educated in Toronto he achieved much of his success on American tv. series.

 Ben Chaplin plays Captain John Clarkson, the English naval leader who befriends Aminata and helps her out at several points in the series.  The British born actor made an American breakthrough with "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" (1996).  Another of his films was "London Boulevard" (2010).

Allan Hawco plays Soloman Lindo, a Jewish businessman who plays a critical role in Aminata's (and other family members) movements.  Born and raised in Newfoundland is most famous for "Republic of Doyle" as the lead actor, writer and producer and is set in St. John's where he lives.

Louis Gossett Jr. played Daddy Moses a religious and community leader. for two episodes  He was the first African American to win a Oscar for best supporting actor with "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982).  He also won a Primetime Emmy Award for an appearance in "Roots" (1977).  Played Anwar Sadat in tv mini-series, "Sadat" (1983,   Remember him in one episode with "The Good Fight" (2017).

 Cuba Gooding Jr. played a close friend to Aminata in two episodes  He also won an Oscar for best supporting actor with "Jerry McGuire" (1996) as an obnoxious football player.  Another notable movie he appeared in was "Selma" (2013). First drew attention as a break dancer.  

The book and the series are well worth your time.  Books generally give a fuller picture of what the author is trying to convey.  There must have been some interesting negotiations to set up a mini series.  The notion of a two hour film must have been rejected fairly early, but a mini series is a big step.  The advantage of the series is that it is a type of summary of the book and also has the benefit of further thought and collaborative thinking.  Assembling a cast and crew and organizing locations, costumes is a mammoth undertaking.  The message comes through.

Titles that have been bolded are ones that I have seen or read.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

For me this is the year of the Octopus

Of course it really is the year of the Covid-19 pandemic and we all have had life changed forever. and coping has been ongoing.   On a personal level I woke up to the glory of nature.  Earlier (maybe even last year) read that an octopus is a sentient meaning not only that they are intelligent, but possess emotions..  Separately I was impressed by a post demonstrating how an octopus could go through complicated barriers.  




My local library offered a DVD (before the shutdown) and it turned out to be very interesting.  "Octopus:  Making Contact" which originally was on the "Nature" program seen on PBS network.  It swung around a University of Alaska professor, Dr. David Scheel who had decided to build a big fish tank at home to house an octopus.  He pointed out that some people see the octopus as an alien being and we might profit by studying it before we have to deal with actual aliens.  We may have a common ancestor, but it was so far gone that essentially the octopus traveled a different evolutionary path than humans.  We saw demonstrations of color changing and thenmany signs of unexpected intelligence.  In his time off the professor traveled to different locations I believe one was near Madagascar and another off Australia.  He and his daughter both interacted with the octopus in their home aquarium.

A real mind opener was "My Octopus Teacher" made available by Netflix.  Craig Foster, film maker who was said to be burnt out had retreated to one of his boyhood passions which was underwater exploring.  He lived near a kelp forest off the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Town, South Africa.  To get closer to the marine life he decided to not use a wet suit or tank resulting in limited underwater time.  Eventually he noticed an unusual movement by what turned out to be an octopus.  It took awhile to build up trust, but the octopus accepted Craig  and they had physical contact.  We were shown how easily an octopus can change not only colour, but also shape and texture.  Further than that Craig was able to provide examples of real strategic thinking, including one where the octopus used Craig's body to trap a prey.  Over the years Craig had accumulated hours of film.  


At one point he showed some of his film to Pippa Ehrlich, a diving partner.  She had been raised in Johannesburg, became a natural history film maker and an award winning environmental journalist.  She was excited and made efforts to raise money and organize.  They brought in camera people (including herself) to supplement Craig's original film.  She brought in an experienced producer, James Reed to set up the interview with Craig that provides the narrative for the film.  James had won awards for a an underwater film, "Jago:  A Life Underwater."

The cinematography is stunning and includes some very intimate scenes between Craig and the octopus.  Craig had several years of film from the kelp forest which on its own is a very unique environment.  Kevin Smuts, another South African with experience in many documentaries and commercials provided music that supported the many mood changes in the film.

Craig Foster started out thinking he was a visitor, but came to realize we are all part of nature.   A few years ago I discovered calamari tasted better than expected, but after this year I will not be eating any more.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Last Policeman

Ben H. Winters combines mystery with science fiction, an intriguing combination. "The Last Policeman came out in 2012.  Previously I had read 'Underground Airlines"(2016) as I misunderstood and was actually searching for a more promoted book "The Underground Railroad." recommended.  Both books were read, blogged  and surprisingly there was more positive response to my mistake.  Read about Ben H Winter's later book:


 The end of the world is coming and even has a date. How do people react? Some people commit suicide not seeing any point in continuing life. Others drop what they have been doing and start pursuing their bucket list, leaving a lot of abandoned jobs with no replacements.  A third reaction is revealed not too far into the book, but first the title protagonist, the last policeman wonders what keeps him going.  He wants to solve a case that seems pointless to everyone aware of it.  A man was found hung dead at a local McDonald's washroom. he seemed obsessed with the impending doom, no signs of a violent struggle-- a perfect suicide case. Henry Palace investigates the dead man's room and comes across a piece of paper with a name on it. Easy to speculate the start of a suicide note, but Henry decides it might be worth following up.  Most of his efforts confirm a likely suicide.   Eventually he realizes that some people to cope by choosing drugs an in some cases even after having broken the habit.  This is on the way to solving the death, but there are a few twists along the way.

Although various people encountered are asked if they would kill themselves and they all deny.   Some actually enjoy what they are doing.  In the case of Henry he feels a challenge and a purpose.   Keeping busy works for many.  Science Fiction creates situations that propose potential and often current situations.  Ben H. Winters has published 10 books andwon numerous awards including an Edgar for this one.

Although I read lots of science fiction up to my 20's, I dropped it until I met Barry Finn.  Read about my conversion:

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Rising Phoenix: The Disabled move forward

Essentially this movie is about the Paralympic Games, but in reality it is about disabled people carving a bigger place in the world.   It is set up to highlight a few athletes from different parts of the world and to include some history of the movement.  Every one has a unique story.  The athletes have "qualified" for the games because of war, accidents, birth or disease.  They have each struggled to deal with their limitations and then to stretch their abilities.  Perhaps their biggest handicap is the perception of others.

The film inspired me to do some research and draw upon my own memories.

The history starts with Dr. Ludwig Guttmann who lived in Germany where as a Jew in the 1930's he was forbidden to work in public hospitals.  He was able to be a neurosurgeon in Breslau and after Kristallnacht there was a rush of patients that he had to answer for the Gestapo the next day.  That was considered a warning.H  e escaped, and was able to smuggle a few children whose parents had already been taken away.  In England during World War II he was able to offer his medical services and volunteered to work with  seriously injured soldiers that other avoided as spinal injuries were difficult to deal with.  He was set up at Stoke-Mandeville with a spinal injuries centre.  Dr Guttmann instituted some programs such as turning over patient bodies every two hours to prevent bed sores.  He developed all sorts of physiotherapies and exercises.  He discovered that sports were motivating and advanced from recreational play to competition.

London was the site of the 1948 Olympics, the first after the war.  On the same day Dr. Guttmann Dr. initiated the first Stoke-Mandeville Games which consisted of 16 servicemen and women recovering from injuries competing in archery.  In 1952 some Dutch service members joined in to make it the International Stoke-Mandeville Games.  His daughter who appeared in the film pointed out that Paralympics does not refer to paralyzed athletes, but is meant to denote Parallel  Olympics.

It did not really become officially the Paralympics until the 1960 Rome Olympics.  400 athletes from
23 countries competed and it developed in parallel to the Olympics every 4 years.  In 1976 the Winter Paralympics were held for the first time in Sweden and also continued every four years.

In 1960 the International Sport Organization for the Disabled set up to expand opportunities for other disabled athletes such as visually impaired, amputees, those with cerebral palsy and paraplegics.   They tackled the problems of adapting sports for the disabled and classifying degrees of disabilty to level the competition.  The deaf had already set up their own organization for international sports.

Each year more athletes, more countries and more sports.  More sports means that more disabled people can find something suitable for them.

1976 Olympics were in Montreal, but the  Paralympics were held in Etobicoke which later became part of Toronto.  I was working on a project that involved wheelchair basketball that at the time was dominated by the Israeli team.  They had been through a number of wars and the Israeli government made an effort to rehabilitate the many injured combatants so that no one was left behind.  My press pass enabled me to see many events.  The one that I remember best was the high jump for amputees where Canadian Arnold Boldt was expected to win.  There was a light rain, but nevertheless Arnold set a new world record (I believe he already held the record).  I could not have fathomed how a one legged person could jump over his own height.  This was the first Paralympics to include the blind.  A lot of people came to appreciate that people could always do more.

Russia did not want to admit they had disabled people and would not hold Paralympics.  The Paralympics were picked up in the Netherlands in 1980.   Dr. Guttman had died before the games and was honored.

Since the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games and the 1992 Albertville Winer Olympics the Paralympics have been held at the the Olympic venues and have the same facilities.  In 2001 the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee agreed on the practice of "one bid, one city" tying the two events together.

There was a negative comment regarding the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, however research reveals some positive movement.  It was the first time for international corporate sponsorship.  They also promoted cultural achievements by the disabled across disciplines.  For the first time intellectually disabled athletes had medal competitions.  Over 388,000 attended.  There had been a Congress before the game that discussed empowering disabled people around the world.  In the last few decades we can notice that buildings are more wheelchair friendly, but also governments are making a more conscious effort to cater to the needs of disabled people and to protect them against discrimination.

2004 Athens added more sports.  Media coverage for Americans was disappointing in that television camera crews didn't stay, meaning Americans had to wait up to two months for coverage, while other countries received live feeds.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were hosted in a country with a history of denying disabilities.  But they took the challenge seriously and offered a competitive team, not only for their games, but for future games.  Competitors (and profit motivated media) were pleased with big crowds.  As usual the Chinese benefited from a greater awareness of what the so-called disabled could contribute.

2015 Parapan Am Games to Ontario and were well covered in media.  The famous CN Tower made their popular Edgewalk accessible for wheelchair and had Rick Hansen try it out.  The CN Tower had participated in the Pan American Games and Parapan Am Games.

For 2016 Rio Di Janeiro went through financial difficulties that threatened the Paralympics.  Some thought the Olympic committee must have dipped into funds that had been set aside.  A lot of last minute negotiations saved the games, but initially the athletes performed in front of mostly empty stadiums.  These was very disheartening for the athletes, however the local citizens finally heard about the excitement and began filling the different venues.  One scene from the film illustrates the power of crowds during coverage of bocce.  The athletes are very sensitive and officials were concerned they were bothered by the enthusiasm, but were assured that the athletes were craving the attention.

The Rider, where I used to work has had strong support for the Para-equestrian that became a part of the Paralympics.  We had been told that riding horses helps boost balance and confidence among many disabled people.  Competition gives a focus to some and has made many more aware of an activity that can enhance their lives. 

A number of personal stories made the movie more memorable.

Jean Baptiste Alaize had one leg hacked off with a machete during tribal conflicts in his native Burundi of 1993 when he was only 3 years old.  He witnessed his mother being murdered.  Eventually he was adopted by a French couple.  He chose to be a long jumper.

Ellie Cole from Australia had her leg amputated below the knee at age 3.  She pointed out that in Australia everyone needs to learn to swim and that turned out to be a salvation for her.  She became a Paralympics swim champion.  She learned bullies like to pick on disabled students, but while she was in high school she threw her prosthetic leg at one and that stopped further aggravation.  Not sure, but believe it is her photo on the top poster.

Another Australian Ryley Batt had been born without legs and missing a few fingers.  He was encouraged by his father who had drive motorized vehicles and took him water skiing.  He gravitated to wheelchair rugby which is a very rough sport with athletes frequently knocking each other off their chairs.  Ryley became known as one of the toughest.  His team lost in London, but he lost weight, got more fit and was able to finally beat the Ameriacans in Rio De Janeiro.

Jonny Peacock was a British sprinter who defeated the world famous Oscar Pistorius for the 100 metres title during the 2012? London Paralympics before a packed crowd of 80,000.  Oscar's comments afterwards was that it showed how much the sport had developed.

A runner Ntando Mahlangu from South Africa explained how he felt liberated with a Cheetah blades.  He lived in a rural area which tend to be neglected for the disabled who tend to be hidden away.  Ironically he had a pet cheetah and sometimes trained with it.  Cheettah blades were invented by Van Philips a biomedical engineer who had lost his leg at age 21.  Unlike previous prosthetic legs it generates energy and has become the norm for many disabled athletes. Ntando won a silver medal in the 800 metres run.

Cui Zhe, a young Chinese woman born with disabilities recounted that her parents were poor and needed help to deal with her.  The Beijing Paralympics helped to galvanize more support.  Cui was a medal winner in power lifting.

Bebe Vio had meningitis at an early age and was lucky to survive.  Her parents consented to amputate her arms, thinking it would end the attack on her body, but it didn't.  Bebe took the pressure off her parents and agreed to a leg amputation a bit later that did seem to end the attack.  Her friends gave her the title of "rising phoenix." Bebe loved fencing and she found with the wheelchair version she could recapture much of the joy she had felt.

Tatyana McFadden became a producer for the film and likely one of the inspirational participants.  She was born in Leningrad, Russia,with legs bent behind her and for several years she walked with her arms.  Adopted to the U.S., she was unable to use a wheelchair, but after several surgeries to straighten out her legs she adapted.  She became a wheelchair champion at virtually every distance.  decided wanted to try cross country skiing instead of concentrating on the next Paralympics, but she had a personal motive.  She went back to Russia for winter Paralympics and won in front of her biological mother.  She has been an activist and is at least partially responsible for legislation providing opportunities for disabled athletes to participate in inter scholastic sports. She appeared on the Ellen DeGeneris show.

Prince Harry, identified as the Duke of Sussex made supporting comments throughout the film.  One comment was regarding the ambitions of Dr. Guttmann was that "he wanted to turn those individuals into taxpayers" meaning to become useful citizens.

The opening and closing ceremonies are big shows on their own.  Big time performers sing and dance, but one of the highlights are "disabled" performers that are very entertaining as dancers and singers.  You will also appreciate international good will.  One example pointed out was the Iraqui team near those athletes who were there because of war injuries incurred in Iraq.

Human resources come in many variations.  Until recently the disabled were written off unless they could adapt and had help.  Now they are being given more opportunities to contribute.  The Paralympics have opened society's eyes and we are all benefiting.  Sports lovers will find the alluring attraction of competition and skill.  All of us will feel inspired by athletes who have overcome difficulties most of us have never had to deal wit, not just physical, but perceptions of other people.

I have written many more details about the Paralympics and Parapan Am Games:

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Banishment, A Russian film to ponder

The Banishment was only the second feature for Andrey Zvyagintsev as director and on the first one he wrote the script.  For this one he searched for a suitable subject and finally hit upon "The Laughing Matter" by William Saroyan and in 2004 preparation for the film began.   I have not read that book, but it has been pointed out that the character of the leading woman has been changed. In the book she was portrayed as mentally unstable, but in the book she is less so.

Andrey felt his film would not be popular with Americans as it lacks physical action and requires a mythological sensibility and some introspection.  A lot of Russian films might fit that bill.  Check which includes some other films by Zvyagintsev and Russian contributions to world cinema.

A key line near the beginning from Vera:  "I am pregnant.  It's not yours."  The husband, Alexander is very upset and at first walks away.  Later as she tries to explain herself he hits her hard enough to knock her to the floor.  In the second half we get a different perspective.  The main male character does not want to lose his children and is looking for a resolution that starts with an abortion.  He has two brothers, one, Mark is criminal and the other Robert is more sensitive.

The producer, Dmitry Lesnevsky and Andrey had agreed on a Swedish actress (who spoke Russian), but she was tied up for a key filming time.  The producer agreed to postpone for a year to get the key time of August and September in 2006 for filming exterior shots.

With an extra year for preparation they had to provide security for some mostly built properties Moldova, France, and Belgium.  Other crew and cast members chosen and prepared.  The script was tidied up.

Andrey Zvyagintsev, the director had been born in the Siberian city of Novisibirsk and started out to be actor on stage.  Moving to Moscow he tackled the film industry but could only get roles as an extra.  After 8 years of that a friend offered him a chance to direct with tv. programs.  He was given a chance to direct "The Return" () which won an award at the Venice International Film Festival.  He continued with short films, but also a succession of award winning films, "The Banishment" (2007), "Elena" (2011),"Leviathon" (2014) and "Loveless" (2017).  He has stated that his favorite author was Fyodor Dostoevsky which would help explain his preference for serious themes.  Of current interest is that he that in 2017 he had supportive words for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Dmitry Lesnevsky, the producer, Moscow born had graduated as a journalist, but while in university with his mothr he had founded REN-Tv which became an independent and large tv production company where he became familiar with Andrey.  Dmitry gave Andrey the opportunity to direct "The Return"in 2003.  His films won awards and he moved on acquire a German Tv network which was later sold to Disney. 

Konstatin Lavronenko who played Alexander had been spotted by Andrey on a stage play and made an impression.  However ten years later when Andrey was recruiting cast members for "The Return" Konstatin had given up acting for five years.  He played the strong lead in that film and won an award at the Venice Internatonal Film Festival.  Andrey did not think he would be suitable for "The Banishment" because his age wasn't ideal, however Konstantin was allowed to read the script after which he campaigned for the role.  Again he was selected for the lead role.  This led to him winning the Palme award at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time a Russian had won.  He has been working steadily in movies and tv.

Maria Bonnevie  who played the female lead, Vera was born in Sweden.  She has appeared in films with Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and English films including "Insomnia" (1997).  She speaks Russian and was one of the first roles decided.

Alexandr Balluev who played the brother Mark, in his youth hoped to be a hockey player.  He sent 7 years with the Soviet Army Theatre.  He had appeared in a few American films and was a big star in Russia.  He also speaks German, English and French.

Dmitry Ulyanov played the 3rd brother Robert, who gave some emotional support to Vera.  His film career started in 2000.

I originally viewed this a little too casually and felt I was missing something even after the special features.  A second more careful viewing gave me some more insight, although not certain I really got it.  Multiple viewings can often give more understanding and enjoyment.

I have now seen all 5 of Andrey Zvyagintsev feature films and they have all been impressive.  I look forward to his next film.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This blog follows a series of accidental incidents to uncover some history that affects everyone.   It started out as medical journey, but covered corporate, legal affairs and personal histories.  Rebecca Skloot discovered the name of Henrietta Lacks while studying in a make-up course.  Her efforts ran up against many barriers, resistance within family, and hunting for people to give information.  The movie as well as the book recount phones being hung up and doors closed.  Inevitably one lead led to another.   Another student learned from a name overlooking an urinal.

As for me, learned about book from Chris, a librarian participating in a seniors phone in program that I only learned about as my daughter was one of the organizers.  While wading into the book I was able to visit our local library that had only opened up for browsing two days previous.  Because of the Covid-19 pandemic I also was reluctant to touch objects and so did not sort through DVDs, but spotted the name and investigated to find the film that dramatized some of what I was reading.  Oprah Winfrey not only played a leading character, but also was a producer.

It could have been a medical history book covering the technical details of what the cells meant for science and some of the challenges along the way and for many that would be sufficient.  Nothing happens in isolation.  There were legal and economic developments that expanded the scope  Easily the family involvement could have been minimized.  With this book and film we understand better that everything is connected.

World famous Johns Hopkins Hospital provided free medical care for poor people who were mostly black.  They also did a lot of research.  At the time there seemed to be little concern about getting permission to use cells and other body parts for research

Henrietta, a poor black woman felt ill and sought medical attention.  Cervical cancer was identified and eventually killed her in 1951.  The doctors took cell samples from cancerous tumors and were expecting they would have a limited life.   They were surprised to learn that her cells kept multiplying.  This allowed them to sell her cells indefinitely for a very wide range of research which included cancer, polio, diabetes, AIDS.  Cosmetic testing has involved live animals, but her cells offered an alternative.  Her cells have been sent to space and been involved in nuclear explosions.  The entire global community has benefited.  Some racists would be shocked if they realized they have benefited from a poor black woman.  We have all been impacted, if only for what didn't happen to us or a loved one.

After Rebecca, a white woman had her curiosity piqued she found it difficult to get information.  Information was almost non existent at first, but getting access to computers and the inter-net opened up possibilities.  She eventually learned of family contacts, but learned they were suspicious and  felt abused.  As they understood the impact of Henrietta's contributions some of them felt entitled to some compensation as most of them were poor.  Others felt their mother/aunt/friend deserved recognition and they wanted to know more.  Earning their trust took up most of the author's time, but it also opened up the scope of her message.

The Nazis used prisoners to do medical experiments.  After the war their actions were condemned in the Nuremberg Code.  Long before the Nazi actions, black slaves had been experiment subjects.  Slave owners told slaves that ghosts were responsible for death and sometimes paraded around in white sheets to frighten their slaves which evolved to the Ku Klux Klan uniforms.

In 1957 informed consent" became a legal term limiting use of humans and human parts in experiments.  On the other hand some scientists,were able to overcome court objections to patenting body parts by arguing that engineered bacteria was only possible by human intervention and could be of service for mankind.

The case of David Moore illustrates how duplicitous some medical doctors can be.  Working in Alaska he developed a type of rare cancer and had been referred to a doctor at UCLA who removed his spleen.  David had signed a consent form authorizing the cremation of any body parts left over.  After the surgery David moved to Seattle, but made regular trips to Los Angeles and gave up blood, bone marrow and semen as part of a followup  He decided all that could be done by a local doctor and when he announced this he was offered plane and luxury hotel fare. He was also asked to sign a new consent form that would allow UCLA to have the rights for any products that might be developed from his blood or bone marrow.   Fearing a refusal might jeopordise his treatment he  signed, but when a future form was given he asked if there was any commercial value from his followup visits and was told no, he decided to not authorize any rights.   The doctor's office followed up asking him to correct his mistake several times, but eventually David sent the form to a lawyer.  They learned that the doctor had in fact been using the physical materials to develop a cell line.  It was estimated that the cell line would be worth over $3 billion dollars.

In the meantime the Lacks family had been asked to give blood samples and had been told it would help protect them from cancer.  The real story was that with the popularity of Henrietta's cells the problem of contamination developed.  Scientists realized if they could use family DNA markers they could separate contaminated cells and continue with valuable experiments.

Tissue banks have developed and provide critical resources that benefit everyone.  The author had pointed out that  beyond the issue of money, some patients might object to research that offended their religious or philosophical  sentiments.  The issues are still evolving.

Henrietta's cells turned out to be have an enormous commercial potential.  The original gatherer of her cells, Dr. George Gey did not charge for Henrietta's cells, but a cell bank did.  Relying mainly on her cells Microbiological Associates became part of Invitrogen and Bio Whittaker, two large bio-tech companies.  Altogether there were 17,000 patents based on what were called HeLa cells.  HeLa is a contraction of Henrietta Lacks and helped disguise the personal connection.
To obtain family medical records Rebecca dealt with different family members who were distrustful and had their problems.  A key contact was Henrietta's daughter, Deborah portrayed  by Oprah Winfrey.  An elder sister had died under unknown circumstances and it appears she was mentally challenged and possibly suffered epilepsy and eventually it was learned had been poorly treated.  One of Deborah's sons had been involved in violent crime as had one of her brothers.  The reader is aware that family was kept deliberately ignorant and suffered poverty which leads to desperate decisions. 

Rebecca had many contacts with the family and delved into their genealogy which included a white branch.  The blacks knew of the white connections, but did not socialize.  As is becoming common knowledge many slave owners had sex with their female slaves resulting in mixed race.  Recently it was brought up that Kamala Harris had some white slave owners in her family tree.  This was presented as proof that she is a hypocrite but overlooks that such relationships were the result of coercion or unequal power and were common.

Human tissue has been commercialized and have saved (or prolonged) countless lives.  A few patients have participated in huge profits.  In public, organs are not supposed to be charged for, but in reality organs have been paid for in the black market.  Also it seems wealthy people seem to be at the front of the line when organs were needed.  Another concern is the right to approve research projects as some might go against religious or personal beliefs.

While reading this book I was also following coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic  and heard Dr Seema Yasmin raise concern that in the search for a vaccine it would be optimal to test a wide variety of humans including blacks.  A legacy of blacks being  exploited for medical testing is that many avoid such tests because of previous history. 

The book is unique in its range.  The author let us follow her efforts to get medical information with the family and had to deal with all their dysfunctions which in turn led to an exploration of legal and ethical implications with some racial overtones.  The medical discoveries were very interesting in their own right, but as with everything else in creation they are part of a bigger context. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


A confession to start.  I thought Kamala Harris should have been the presidential nominee so being picked as the Vice President candidate almost seems like a consolation prize.  On the other hand Joe Biden proved himself to be above personal vindictiveness, a quality that should be appreciated more than usual in contrast to the current president.

What to like about Kamala Harris?  Barely heard of her before the judicial hearings, but I loved the way she systematically handled William Barr and Brett Kavanagh.  She certainly earned Trump's dismissive characterization of "nasty."  But she has a lot more going for her when you dig deeper.  As a prosecutor she tackled large corporations.  She officiated at an historical gay marriage.  She was tough on crime. There will be criticisms from some quarters that she wasn't tough enough or too tough, but it should be pointed out she was pragmatic and pushed as far as she thought prudent.

Somewhere along the way, Biden realized that there a few women who were qualified to be president and their time was overdue.  He also realized that black lives really do matter and he needed to cater to that, although he seriously considered a few women including Amy Klobuchar before she recognized the party would benefit from a black leader.  Joe is known to like Elizabeth Warren who had done him a big favor in one debate and lately Governor Gretchen Witmer.  So the process narrowed the decision, but Kamala Harris still stood out.

Kamala's confrontation with Biden at a primary debate was said to be a mark against her.  Personally she seemed the better prepared and bold candidate.  However she apparently offended a number of established Democrats and her support dried up.  She was realistic and decided to drop out in the interest of both herself and the party.  Biden is said to value loyalty and to want someone he can work with and recalled how Kamala had worked with his son Beau on some efforts he supported.

Contrast that with Trump who seemed to pick foxes to guard the henhouse.  One of his early strategic supporters was Jeff Sessions.  Sessions is not someone I admire, but he had enough sense to know, ethically (and politically) he had to recuse himself from the Russian query.  Trump thinking of only protecting himself found a way to fire Sessions and has continued to do everything he could to humiliate the man who played an important role in his rise to power.

Trump knows how to manipulate prejudice to serve his goals, but continuously demonstrates he has little empathy for his rabid supporters.  Instead of pushing a healthy agenda as best he could, he prefers to continuously stoke prejudice against blacks, Mexicans, Iranians, Chinese, etc.  Trump 
while insecure has an enormous ego that drives him to take advantage of ignorance for his own selfish benefit.

Abraham Lincoln is revered for his wisdom.  Choosing his cabinet he selected some of his rivals, partly to keep them under control, but also he recognized they were capable.  Barrack Obama in choosing his Vice President, did not have a close relationship, but recognized that Biden would balance the voters' perceptions of himself.  They came to mutual respect and it was actually Biden who successfully pushed for same sex marriage.  Check out a review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book,

Mike Pence was a clever choice for Trump, although he didn't particularly think so.  Paul Manafort realized Trump was not going to be easily accepted by evangelicals although his policies favored their needs.  Pence gave Trump credibility with evangelicals and other religious conservatives. With his own presidential aspirations thwarted Pence has decided his best path to influence and future office is to suck up to Trump, no matter how ridiculous (and even detrimental to Americans).

Trump has made it easy for the Democrats to position themselves as the party of rational thinkers.  Inevitably they have to cater to special interests, financial and others, but they are doing so by trying to please a wide variety of Americans.  Whereas the Republican primary contenders back in 2015-2016 often seemed to try to one up on their toughness, the Democrats tried to prove they were the more rational candidate.   Dropping climate change agreements, and the Iranian agreement were indications that long term thinking was for sissies.  Their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic shows a willingness to kowtow to an ignorant man.  In all fairness many Republicans know better, but keep quiet in their own quest for power.

Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren all brought good ideas to the party.  Bernie Sanders was perhaps the most rational of all, but was too scary for some.  I hope if and when the Democrats get to power they treat those brave enough to declare their candidacy to help push an agenda that really serves the people.  Trump supporters seem oblivious to rational thinking even when it is in their best interest, so unless the Democrats have an overwhelming victory they will encounter stubborn resistance while the entrenched wealthy manipulate the ignorant.