Upset over the graphic nature of a passage in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a parent in Knoxville, Tennessee is taking her complaint to the district level and attempting to have the book removed from all local county schools.
The New York Times bestselling biography of Henrietta Lacks—an African-American woman whose cervical cancer cells were used, unknowingly, for research in the 1950s—was included in L&N Stem Academy’s summer reading list and it was there where sophomore son of Jackie Sims came across the following passage:
With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta 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 the passage describing when Lacks discovered her cancer too graphic for high school students, and she is urging the district to have the book removed from the system altogether. Although her son was given permission to read another book in place of The Immortal Life, for Sims it’s not enough. She admits to not reading the entire book, but nonetheless considers it in its entirety to be “pornographic” and inappropriate and as such should be removed from the curriculum as she notes she “just feels that strongly about it being out of the hands of our children.”
In response to the complaint, Millicent Smith, executive director of curriculum in the district, has kindly pointed Sims towards the appeal process where she can submit a formal case for the book to be reviewed by a committee if she would like. “I’ve been in this position for three years, and I’ve had one text that has actually gone through the process of reconsideration,” Smith said, “so we feel pretty comfortable when you think about 90 schools, 59,000 students and almost 4,500 teachers. We’re doing a pretty good job selecting the appropriate instructional materials, supporting our curriculum, which supports our standards.”
Though it looks like Sims will take her challenge as far as she can go, the district stands firmly behind the book’s inclusion in on the summer reading list. “Know that the book and teachers have the complete support from the administration of the school,” wrote Jimmy Allen, the assistant principal of L&N Stem Academy, to author Rebecca Skloot. “It’s an amazing book that fits with our Stem curriculum better than almost any book could. The next book that the sophomores are reading? Fahrenheit 451… Oh, sweet, sweet, irony.”
Moreover, in response to Sims’ call to have the book banned several other parents have come out to vocalize their support for the title’s inclusion in the curriculum and to reprimand Sims for her insensitive and inappropriate attempt to regulate not just her own child’s reading choices, but those of all of the students in the district. As Shelly Higgins, parent of a student who will be reading the book next year commented:
To try and stop the book from being read by all students is, to me, a modern day kind of book burning. If someone comes along and tries to take the book out of the curriculum, then that affects me and that affects my child…If the parent doesn’t want the child to read it, the parent doesn’t want the child to read it, but do not take away everybody else’s choice to read that book.
CBDLF will keep you posted on any new developments in this case, but for the time being it looks like the school, the district, and most parents support the book and have the right idea that one person shouldn’t determine the curriculum for everyone.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!