DeMario Thornton welcomes Professor Deleso A. Alford to discuss her work at the intersection of legal and medical education, where her scholarship helps students gain a broader understanding of how race, gender, and classism have shaped these two fields of study. Professor Alford shares highlights from her studies of Henrietta Lacks, critical race theory, cultural competency, and other histories (or HER stories) of black women and their experiences in our healthcare systems.
Professor Deleso A. Alford is the Rachel Emanuel Endowed Professor at Southern University Law Center.
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DeMario Thornton: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Law Student’s podcast with American Bar Association. I am your host DeMario Thornton and we have an excellent episode for you today. I feel like all of our episodes are excellent, but this month as you know is Black History Month and we have Professor Deleso Alford of Southern University Law Center, my alma mater. Can I say alma mater if I’m about to graduate? Well, my school that I attend right now until May, but Professor Alford is the Rachel Emanuel Endowed Professor at Southern University Law Center. She holds an LL.M. from Georgetown University. She is certified in clinical bioethics from the Medical College of Wisconsin. So, she’s had so many accomplishments, but we will talk about that throughout our conversation. So without further ado, we will jump into our great conversation that we had with Professor Alford. Professor Alford, you have a sweet spot between the law and medical education. So can you tell me a little bit about how you got to this specific type of work?
Deleso A. Alford: DeMario, thank you so much for that really good question and I just want to say it’s an honor to be a part of this podcast. My coming into integrating my legal scholarship into medical school curriculum came into fruition based on service. I can say to anyone service pays dividends. I was a volunteer on a community board regarding medical equity. I was told this is when I was teaching in Florida as a law professor in Florida at A&M College of Law. I was told that there is a UCF College of Medicine medical doctor who is the director of equity programming and she would probably be interested in what you’re writing about and, at that time, I was publishing the Henrietta Lacks piece, ‘HeLa Cells and Unjust Enrichment in the Human Body’, a conversation ensued to the service of my board service and the medical doctor invited me to talk to the medical school students.
From that moment on, some administrators were invited to that particular session and I was invited to join the staff, the Faculty of UCF College of Medicine as an adjunct professor of medicine and that led me to be able to utilize my scholarship which was based on the service, my interest as a legal professor and to integrate it into medical schools. I knew that medical schools had a cultural competency accreditation mandate. And so, I wrote a lot of review article which suggested that they needed to integrate critical race theory, critical race feminist theory as a modality to satisfy their accreditation needs.
DeMario Thornton: You’ve literally hit everything that I’m going to talk about today. So, the first thing that you talked about was the Henrietta Lacks. So, if our listeners are unfamiliar, could you give a little bit of background about the story of Henrietta Lacks?
Deleso A. Alford: I will begin with just introducing who she is as a person and what’s important after I tell her story and that’s a part of my scholarship, her story, the unique and particularized experiences of black women and women of color and the intersection with the healthcare system. So, Henrietta Lacks’ story began in 1951 when she entered into the Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer. So, she had a need for healthcare. This was during the time of Medical Apartheid were segregated medical treatment, segregated medical housing. So, she was inside the segregated wing of the hospital and she suffered from cervical care.
Her treatment involved the traditional treatment at that time inserting radioactive rods inside the body. However, she was never informed that it would render her infertile, okay? The lack of personhood that she was knitted with during that interaction with the healthcare system allow medical racism, allow engaging in a particular healthcare service without her consent. What Johns Hopkins doctors did was to take tissue from her body, but they went beyond what she considered it to be addressed with her cervical cancer. What Johns Hopkins did was to extend itself and go beyond that and take out healthy tissue for research purposes.
And so, the article that I wrote HeLa cells and Unjust Enrichment in the Human Body really looks to how Mrs. Lacks was standing at the intersection of race, gender and classism and how that intersection was met with the taking of her body tissue, her cells, which resulted in medical advancements such as in vitro fertilization, polio vaccine. It is used in the COVID vaccine that we currently are using now. The reason being is because the cells that were taken from Mrs. Henrietta Lacks were immortal cells. So, they kept reproducing themselves. And so, the uniqueness of this taking is such that are presented in this article that it has to be met with the equitable remedy such as unjust enrichment, and I think we can talk about a little later but that theory of the case is what is currently being used in the Federal Court in Maryland by Attorney Ben Crump and Attorney Chris Seeger and Weiss.
So, I went from what happened in 1951 which is the historical telling of a story. I tell her stories, the unique and particularized stories of women of color and the healthcare system. What my research has done is to suggest that history matters. Her story matters because of its present-day impact. So, the present-day impact of telling and humanizing Henrietta Lacks is what’s before the court today, 2022. Why? Because biotechnical companies are making billions. Pharmaceutical companies are making billions off of the use of her immortal cells. So, the lawsuit that’s currently before the Maryland Court is about the battle of, in my estimation, humanizing Henrietta Lacks, recognizing her personhood, hence recognizing her legal rights and those legal rights are bestowed upon her representatives, her legal representatives, her family, her legacy. So, the current lawsuit is being brought by her last living son who is stating to the court that we are owed that unjust enrichment. So, that’s in a nutshell, alone nutshell, but I’ll let you know.
DeMario Thornton: So basically, the lawsuit that is going on right now it began with your writings in that law review article?
Deleso A. Alford: Well, I’ll say this. I was asked to write an amicus brief to support the theory of the case of unjust enrichment and I’m just so honored because Attorney Ben Crump, before the court, he made a connection that to this day, it just makes me humble because, as a law professor, you’re writing a law review article for tenure purposes because we have to do scholarship. I tell people write what you believe in. My article was not a long article. It’s not a heavily cited article, but it was to the point, ‘HeLa Cells and Unjust Enrichment in the Human Body’. That is the theory of the case as before the court.
And Attorney Ben Crump noted to the judge that I was in the courtroom, the professor who wrote 10 years prior to this day the seminal article that set forth unjust enrichment and what Ben Crump said was that my article was disregarded in the same sense as medical racism is disregarded and in the same sense as Henrietta Lacks was disregarded. The judge in that moment, she thanked me and she said, “I like to thank you professor for writing this brief.” It was at that point that I realized the impact of our scholarship and when you believe in something, what it means to put it out there and believe it and stand on it and even if others do not cite to it in 10 years that there will be a point and time and season that is right, and I can only say that the advocates that are advocating in court now for Mrs. Henrietta Lacks’ family, they are the voice piece of a new generation of seeking unjust enrichment based on humanizing who’s asking for it. Who’s asking for it? Can we look at the legacy of Henrietta Lacks and give her family what is due to them? That’s justice. I’m sorry. I went a long way to say.
DeMario Thornton: No, there’s no problem. No problem at all. So, we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be right back with Professor Deleso Alford.
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DeMario Thornton: So, we are back with Professor Deleso Alford and we talked about her work with Henrietta Lacks and her article, ‘HeLa Cells and Unjust Enrichment’. So, I want to move a little bit into cultural competency. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is and what it means today?
Deleso A. Alford: Yes, indeed. Cultural competency, it has become works that a lot of individuals are just utilizing I think in a sense of not really understanding that one will never be expected to be competent amongst all cultures. What cultural competency is it is now said to me, it is an opportunity to make one aware, respect and acknowledge other cultures. The level of competency is one that is always evolving. So, what I like to do when I do training on cultural competency in terms of really honing in on the need to have knowledge and awareness of others of cultures in order to really have a positive encounter amongst both medical professionals and now legal professionals because legal professionals, legal education, is now mandated that law schools trained students in cross-cultural competency bias and racism and this is a recent implementation.
DeMario Thornton: So, how is that important in our legal field, the cultural competency?
Deleso A. Alford: It is so important in our legal field because color blindness results in legal disparities. You must see racism in order to understand the total impact of what occurred before you. And I use this example, if a young black male runs from a police officer —
— and the police officer has said, stop. How is the attorney who is representing that young black male? How is that attorney going to be able to convey to a jury the historical and really present-day frame of references that would prompt that young person to not stand and be subject to in his or her mind, I said a young man, of being killed because of the imminent threat in his and her mind. And so, in order to be able to understand your client, you have to be able to humanize your client. The only way that you can humanize your client is to be aware of the sum of the parts of your client and race is only but one part, the life experiences. You know, legal education is moving to really honing in on professional identity. That means all of us. So, I think we’re just at a — legal education is a great point to be at the forefront of addressing legal disparities by training current professionals, in training in legal professionals, as to the awareness of their own biases, implicit biases as well as explicit biases. And once you do that, then that has the potential for a deeper conversation that’s lacking.
DeMario Thornton: Is cultural competency, is this anonymous with the critical race theory or is it just its own way of looking at it?
Deleso A. Alford: Well, in my scholarship, I utilized critical race theory focusing on race and power imbalances and paradigms. I focused on those things as a vehicle. I use it as a tool to address cultural competency and I think in terms of how we do it as a society, how do we have, how do we engage in this conversation of racism, the impact of racism, both legal disparities and healthcare disparities without addressing rate cross-cultural competency, bias and racism, that’s where we are right now. It’s not going to happen. But now that it’s been mandated, I think we have a greater future to look forward to. Medical schools mandated cultural competency training two decades ago. So, that was how I was able to integrate her stories of Henrietta Lacks and the lack of personhood Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy and the development of gynecology and Tuskegee on alternate view of discussing the U.S. Public Health Service syphilis study at Tuskegee which generally focuses on the men impacted with a critical race feminist lens. I ask the question and what about the women. Same story, same historical accounting but with a different lens. I hope that answered your question.
DeMario Thornton: No, yes, you definitely did. And we’ll be back with Professor Deleso Alford after this quick break.
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DeMario Thornton: And we are back with world-renowned Professor from Southern University Law Center, Professor Deleso Alford. Professor Alford, you have been doing a series of what you call them lectures that you entitled her stories. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Deleso A. Alford: Yes. In order to be a law professor, we have three objectives that we have to satisfy, teaching scholarship and service.
My scholarly interest focused on black women, women of color and the healthcare system, how they intersect it and how could I tell their stories. So, I started to think about history is impacted by her stories. And I took three stories, her stories unique and particularized experiences of women of color and their impact or their intersection with the healthcare system. One was Tuskegee story and the impact of women. What you just asked about was that her story of Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, medical experimentation and surgery is where Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy should be contextualized because with the critical race feminist lens, my scholarship encouraged those listening and reading to unpack the institution of enslavement beyond chattel property. And if you use a critical race feminist lens and think about U.S. enslavement and focus on the bodies of black women, there is another story.
So, Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy contextually led to the development of the medical specialty of Gynecology in the United States. How so? Because the medical specialty of gynecology historically, traditionally has been told as a story through the lens of Dr. J. Marion Sims. He’s been called the father of Gynecology. Well, I looked at that story utilizes the lens of critical race feminist lens and I asked, but upon whose body? So, a part of J. Marion Sims memoirs, he named three enslaved women in which he experimented upon, Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy. Recently, J. Marion Sims statute was removed from Central Park. That’s another story about the removal, but I think the replacement of knowledge based on how does this story of Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy and the legal lack of personhood due to U.S. enslavement. Bodies were property. How the continuation and the vestiges of that lack of personhood is currently manifested in today’s present-day encounters with black women and maternal mortality.
So, the telling of how Dr. J. Marion Sims experiment upon develop the specialty of gynecology on the bodies of these women, the current day speculum that is used today was a prototype given historical credit developed by Dr. J. Marion Sims. Critical race feminist lens allows us to ask upon whose bodies and it was looking on the bodies of Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy and he discredited for developing it. So, my scholarship goal in everything I write is to move beyond theory to practical application. So how is telling her story of Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy to medical students in training integrating it into their curriculum when they learn about the specialty of gynecology? How does that impact their present-day professional, the shaping of their professional identity? I’ve done it over a decade and I will suggest to you that I have medical students who come back to me and tell us as an institution. I remember that. I thought about what happened in the past and they’re able to humanize and reach those cross-cultural goals to unpack their implicit biases because they’ve been trained about what happened in the past. How does knowing that her story gives us an understanding of the lack of personhood that black women and women of color currently are undergoing with maternal mortality rates.
DeMario Thornton: Right.
Deleso A. Alford: Serena had about when she almost died —
DeMario Thornton: She did.
Deleso A. Alford: — during pregnancy. Beyonce had a difficult pregnancy.
DeMario Thornton: Yeah.
Deleso A. Alford: So, wealth and status currently will not protect us from a denial of personhood if you don’t understand Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy.
DeMario Thornton: Right. That’s really, really powerful. Well, I want to ask you. I’m going to take a quick little turn. We have a lot of law students listening because, of course, this is a Law Student Podcast. Is there something that you wish you had known coming out of law school or going into law school that would have changed your trajectory or enhanced your trajectory in the legal field?
Deleso A. Alford: I’m so glad you asked that question. Yes, it’s something that I say to my classes that I’ve been saying to people I meet, trust the process. Trust the process, if I had known that my journey is my journey. I have to trust the process that the twists and turns that I personally undergo are not intended to stop me but is intended to make certain that I do and fulfill my divine purpose here on Earth. When you are a law student, oftentimes you are thinking about — you’re looking at others and trying to follow a path. If I had to do it again, I would trust that my inclinations, my interest, my personal life experiences are leading me to where my contribution is. And so, that’s one thing. And the other thing is I’m going to say it and it’s self-serving. Are you ready?
DeMario Thornton: I’m ready.
Deleso A. Alford: I would respect my law professors. I’m saying this and I’m going to explain. When you’re going through law school, you can be so jaded as to your goals that you really don’t understand that service aspect of a professor that volunteers to serve as your moot court board advisor, that service aspect of that professor who is over clubs, whatever club or organization that you’re involved in, I was jaded on what I needed, what I had to do to complete law school. But when I look back and now that I’m a professor, I see that those professors had lives. Those professors had personal tragedies happening every day, and they still came and they performed. And now, I look back and I said, wow, I missed that. And so, I would respect that we all deserve a human card.
DeMario Thornton: You heard it here, folks. Professor ever said be kind to your professors and the students are saying they want our professors to be just as kind to us when they are grading these finals.
Deleso A. Alford: Yes. Trust and I’ll say that trust the process. Give us the right answer, so you’re going to get a good grade.
DeMario Thornton: Professor Alford, I want to thank you immensely. This has been a very eye-opening and insightful conversation. Thank you for your time. Is there anywhere that people can read your works or getting contact with your works or anything?
Deleso A. Alford: Oh, yes. You can contact my number one research assistant, DeMario Thornton. I want to say this. DeMario, you’ve been a wonderful research assistant.
DeMario Thornton: Thank you.
Deleso A. Alford: There is not a time when I could think of a question or text you, please look this up. And so, I appreciate that.
DeMario Thornton: No problem.
Deleso A. Alford: As for students, my email address, you can put [email protected] and I want to encourage you to be confident and also to be humble enough to ask for help and don’t give up. If the professor or the person you’re asking for a letter of recommendation, if they don’t immediately email you back, guess what? Ask again, call again. And those people like myself, I’ll account for, if I’m busy, I appreciate it when you continuously ask me the same question. It gives me another chance. It’s called grace, okay? So, I say this journey and with the pandemic —
— and everything has been happening, COVID-19, virtual learning, if it didn’t do anything for you, it should have made you understand that we are all vulnerable. We are all vulnerable and if we understand that vulnerability, let that equate to seeking humanity in our profession. The law student who becomes a law legal professional, you can never forget humanity. That’s always seeking. We’re seeking humanity now. And if we refer back to historical past and Hurst Oracle past is because it gives us a foundation of how not to repeat it.
DeMario Thornton: Professor, thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for your energy. We really appreciate you and ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for tuning in to us here at the Legal Talk Network and the Law Student Podcast.
Once again, I’m DeMario Thornton signing out.
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