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Authors: Lawrence Hill


BOOK: Blood
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The Massey Lectures are co-sponsored by
Radio, House of Anansi Press, and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The series was created in honour of the Right Honourable Vincent Massey, former Governor General of Canada, and was inaugurated in 1961 to provide a forum on radio where major contemporary thinkers could address important issues of our time.

This book comprises the 2013 Massey Lectures, “Blood: The Stuff of Life,” broadcast in November 2013 as part of
series. The producer of the series was Philip Coulter; the executive producer was Bernie Lucht.


Blood: The Stuff of Life
is Lawrence Hill’s ninth book. His earlier works include the novels
Some Great Thing
Any Known Blood
, and the memoir
Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada
. His novel
The Book of Negroes
won numerous awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, was published around the world, and became a number one national bestseller in Canada. A former journalist with the
Winnipeg Free Press
and the
Globe and Mail
, Hill has travelled widely in Canada, the United States, France, and Spain, and worked as a volunteer with Crossroads International in Niger, Cameroon, and Mali. To encourage the economic and social development of girls and women in Africa, he has supported Crossroads International, currently as an honorary patron, for more than thirty years. He also volunteers with Book Clubs for Inmates and the Black Loyalist Heritage Society of Nova Scotia. Hill lives with his wife, the writer Miranda Hill, and their five children, dividing his time between homes in Hamilton, Ontario, and Woody Point, Newfoundland. He co-wrote the adaptation of
The Book of Negroes
to a six-part TV miniseries and is currently finishing a new novel. For more information on Lawrence Hill, please visit



Some Great Thing

Any Known Blood

The Book of Negroes
(published as
Someone Knows My Name
in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand)


Women of Vision:
The Story of the Canadian Negro Women’s Association

Trials and Triumphs: The Story of African-Canadians

Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada

The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq
, with Joshua Key

Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book:
An Anatomy of a Book Burning


The Stuff of Life


Copyright © 2013 Lawrence Hill

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

This edition published in 2013 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4
Tel. 416-363-4343
Fax 416-363-1017

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Hill, Lawrence, 1957–, author
Blood : the stuff of life / Lawrence Hill.

(CBC Massey lectures series)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-77089-322-1 (pbk.) (CAN) —.ISBN 978-1-77089-324-5 (html) 

1. Blood—Social aspects. I. Title. II. Series: CBC Massey 
lecture series

GT498.B55H54 2013 306.4 C2013-903727-6 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2013909835

ISBN 978-1-77089-323-8 (US)

Jacket design: Bill Douglas

Every reasonable effort has been made to trace ownership of copyright materials.
The publisher will gladly rectify any inadvertent errors or omissions in credits in future editions.

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.

For my son, Andrew Raymond Savoie Hill,

who works with abandon

travels with gusto

and with his deliberate and diplomatic hand

writes the most big-hearted Father’s Day cards


Chapter One

Go Careful with That Blood of Mine: Blood Counts

Chapter Two

We Want It Safe and We Want It Clean:
Blood, Truth, and Honour

Chapter Three

Comes By It Honestly: Blood and Belonging

Chapter Four

From Humans to Cockroaches:
Blood in the Veins of Power and Spectacle

Chapter Five

Of Presidential Mistresses, Holocaust Survivors,
and Long-Lost Ancestors: Secrets in Our Blood

Annotated Bibliography



“Sometimes I look at people and wonder if they are related to me. I do this in public places and private spaces . . . I have indulged in this curious pastime since I was eight years old, when I first understood that all but one of my mother’s family had become white.” 

— Shirlee Taylor Haizlip,
The Sweeter the Juice


“There is no expiation except with blood.”

the ancient Judaiccommentary on Leviticus



I was a child, I was on all fours, playing hide-and-seek on a Toronto schoolyard, when my left wrist began to tingle. I looked down and noticed a broken beer bottle. Turning my hand, I saw more blood than seemed right. It was pouring out of me. I stood, let out a cry, crossed the street, and began running. We lived ten houses up the street, less than two hundred metres away. I got ready to shout out for my mother just as soon as she could hear me. Would I have to go to the hospital? How many stitches would it take to impress my friends? This was a deep cut. Lots of blood. Perhaps I would need twenty stitches. Maybe thirty. Three or four wouldn’t earn bragging rights. As I ran, I held out my left arm to direct my splashing blood onto every single sidewalk panel, each one just over a metre long. I slowed, when necessary, to ensure that the bright red trail remained unbroken. Later, I wanted to be able to walk with my friends up and down the street and say, “Look! That’s my blood!” Once I reached 20 Beveridge Drive, I turned into the driveway, forgot about the trail of blood, and began screaming. By now, I was hyperventilating. I terrified my mother when I burst into the house with blood still flowing out of me. She drove me to the hospital.

A few hours later, with three or four measly stitches in my wrist, I was back home. Inspecting the sidewalk proved something of a disappointment. The dramatic red trail had already turned rust-brown. No one would even recognize it as blood, unless I pointed it out and insisted. I told a friend or two, but they were so supremely unimpressed that I gave up with the story. I did, however, study the splatter every day as I walked up and down the street. My blood clung to the sidewalk for a respectable period of time — a good week or so, until rain washed it away.

Looking back, I wonder about the mad impulse to hold out my arm and splash every sidewalk panel. I wanted to mark the earth with my own sacred fluid. Look here! This is me! This is proof of my very life, here in this long line of bloody splotches on the sidewalk. The blood had appeared so hot, fresh, and significant when it was spilling from me. But hours later, when it had been downgraded to a mud-brown trail, my accident could no longer be heralded as special or sacred, because the trail I had left no longer looked like blood.

In a separate incident, when I was about eight years old, I crashed, arms first, through a glass door at a cottage in southern Ontario. I still have the scars — right wrist, left bicep — to prove it.

I grew up in Toronto, and you could correctly surmise that I was not wise to the ways of cottages and their storm doors. Ours was not a cottage family. We didn’t own one, rarely visited them, and in fact I don’t recall my parents ever taking my brother, sister, and me to one before. They most certainly didn’t do so after. Shall I say, tongue in cheek, that cottaging was not in our blood? My parents were American immigrants. So let’s blame this utter lack of Canadianism on them. White mother, from Chicago. Black father, most recently from Washington, D.C. The day after they married, they said goodbye to the United States and moved to Canada, where they figured life would be easier for them, and for my brother, sister, and me. I supposed they hadn’t factored glass doors at cottages into the equation. And why should they have? My father was urban, educated, and lower middle class; cottaging seemed to be about the last thing on his radar. Why trade a perfectly serviceable bungalow in suburban Toronto for a smaller, dirtier house with one tiny bathroom, linoleum floors, and busted screens that admitted every manner of mosquito and horsefly? And pay for this supposed luxury, on top of that?

So we never went to cottages. Except this one time, when we visited a small lakeside cottage with another Toronto family — also black, and also with parents who had left the United States to live and to raise children in Canada.

Not long after we arrived, both sets of parents went out for what later seemed an interminable walk in the woods. My older brother and Alan, a boy from the other family, promptly climbed into a boat and rowed into the middle of the lake. Well. Only mildly risky activity, in comparison to what I got into. That left three children in the cottage under the age of ten: my sister, Karen, our friend Sharon, and me. It did not take long to make Karen and Sharon hate me. Boys are gifted in the art of getting girls to hate them. I don’t remember what I did to get excommunicated, but soon enough I found myself locked outside a glass door and wanted to get back inside. Where I could infuriate my sister some more. Where the mosquitoes would be less numerous. They were homing in on me, whining like a choir of enemies, saying, “We’re going to suck your blood, and we are so many that there’s nothing you can do about it.” Outside, I would surely lose some blood to the mosquitoes. But I would have lost a whole lot less if I hadn’t tried to rectify the situation. I rattled the door frame, but the lock held. While Karen and Sharon enjoyed my plight, I raised my hands and arms and banged on the door. Nothing. I banged once more, and crashed through the glass.

Travelling through glass is not an advisable way to make your point, beat your sister in a contest of wills, or enter a cottage. I don’t remember pain, but I do recall terror. I was struck dumb with fear, because as I studied my right wrist and my left bicep — the two parts of me that had been ripped open — I gazed into deep wounds. I saw white inside those cuts. Was it perhaps a ligament? I was not sure exactly what bodily tissue revealed itself to me, but as the blood began to gush, the last thing I wanted to do again was to look deep into my own body. I understood that I had bones, ligaments, muscles, and blood, but to witness them seemed terrifying. Their proper state was invisible, and neatly tucked away under my skin. I slapped my right wrist and left bicep hard against my chest, locking them into place and dreading the hour when someone might insist on prying them apart. The terror that caused me to clamp my arms so firmly against my body was surely a good thing, in that it elevated my arms, applied pressure, and reduced bleeding during the hour or so that it took my parents to return from their walk in the woods.

With my arms still tight against my chest, my father eased me into the back of a Volkswagen Beetle. I believe he sat back there with me while his friend drove us to see a doctor. I don’t remember any pain in the doctor’s office, either — although he coaxed me to release my chest and open my arms, and must have injected a local anaesthetic into me before he stitched me up. Only when the cuts were closed — I remember twenty-four stitches on the wrist and seventeen on the bicep — was I ready to look down again. There was no more blood. It was safe to look at myself again. Soon I would be able to return home to brag to my friends about my cuts and stitches. But I would never forget the sight of my own bodily tissues, and the bubbling up of my own blood, which seemed, to me, symbols of my own mortality — symbols I was not ready to confront.

I have shared two intimate stories from my own life to underline the different ways that I saw — and that we all perhaps see — blood in the body. In the first instance, I was imagining immortality. Blood splashed down on the sidewalk was a sign of my own life. My own person. As the blood fell from me, I imagined that I was marking the sidewalk forever. I had seen some children scratch their initials into wet concrete, but this was far more dramatic. In the second instance, crashing through a pane of glass actually offered a window into something that I was not supposed to see: my own blood and guts — my own mortality. Seeing deep into my own body made me feel that I was at risk of losing all that was supposed to be kept sealed and locked inside me. So from an early age, I came to read blood in two distinct ways: either as a sign of impermanence or as one of immortality. And as the years have passed, I have learned that in between those two extremes, there are endless ways to imagine the meaning of blood — ours, and that of others.

Almost half a century after crashing through a cottage door, I had my blood taken in a medical lab. Just a routine checkup. A prick in the crook of the arm, and no, I didn’t look. On my laboratory requisition, there were boxes corresponding to some fifty possible tests. Liver function. Kidney function. Cholesterol levels. Potassium. Blood glucose. Blood glucose averaged over the last three months. If all these boxes were ticked, and the results published, some of my most intimate details would be made public. The nurse worked silently. Each time she changed a vial, I heard a little
. I counted the pops. One. Two. Three. Only three vials that day — not too much of an ordeal for me. Within a minute, she had extracted the blood and rolled labels onto the vials. What a waste of my blood it would be if someone mislabelled the vials. I would have had my own arm pricked and blood drawn for nothing. You want your blood to count. To the nurse or the lab technician, it’s a hazardous substance. But to you, the rightful owner, it reflects your very life. O lab technician, go careful with that blood of mine. Treat it right. And once you have emailed the test results, please shred my papers before you throw them out.

with blood, and I’m not the only one. As both substance and symbol, blood reveals us, divides us, and unites us. We care about blood, because it spills literally and figuratively into every significant corner of our lives.

It’s hard to imagine a single person in a school, restaurant, theatre, hockey arena, hospital room, or bookstore who does not have a set of personal stories about blood. Maybe it was the blood of a distant ancestor, persecuted because his or her blood was deemed to be impure. Maybe it was a grandfather who fell under the blade of a farm instrument and bled to death in the fields. Maybe it was an aunt who donated plasma weekly for decades, or a sister who won international attention for designing a more effective way to kill cancerous white blood cells before they multiplied madly and killed the patient. Maybe something happened to you in the blood lab, or in the operating room, and lodged so deeply in your mind that you have passed the story along to every single family member. Blood keeps you alive, for sure. Yet, the very blood in your veins and arteries can suddenly betray you. One day you feel healthy and have just hiked up a mountain with the person you most love in the world, and the next day what you thought was a routine blood test tells you that you have prostate cancer and had better decide, pronto, if you’re going to opt for surgery or radiation, or tempt the gods by doing nothing at all. Blood is the lubricant of our bodies and the endlessly circulating river supplying oxygen and nutrients to our cells. But it is far more than a sign of your physical health, or an omen of your mortality. It has the potential to reveal your most hidden secrets: How is your cholesterol level? How much alcohol have you consumed? Have you been snorting cocaine? Are there any other residual traces that might scare off an employer, or lead a life insurance company to deny your application? What has been the average amount of sugar in your blood over the past ninety days? Did you cheat in that Olympic marathon race? Are you the father of that child? Blood won’t tell all. But it can tell enough to get you in a whole lot of trouble.

On the flip side of trouble lies salvation. Through blood, many people commune with God. For centuries, humans spilled blood to seek purification, be released from sin, placate the gods and ensure that the sun would rise the next day and that the earth would offer bountiful nourishment.

Blood speaks to our deepest notions of truth and sanctity. Blood can be used in a court of law to vindicate or convict us. It is one of the most sacred gifts a person can offer, but if it is not safe and pure, that same gift can kill not just one person but many who receive the blood products that it helped create. Blood has been employed in the most outrageous ways to divide human beings and justify crimes beyond heinous, and it has the ability to unite us in the most noble ways.

Blood counts in virtually every aspect of our being that matters deeply. If you are fighting for your life, or caught in a downward slide and soon to be facing death, the things that you care about and the things that you hope for after you have departed this earth are likely to be related in some way to questions of blood. That daughter of yours, who has von Willebrand disease: Will she get the right clotting products so that she can give birth to a healthy child and stay healthy herself? The brother who has leukemia: Will they find a suitable bone marrow donor? The sister who is working for Doctors Without Borders in Kenya: Will she have enough anti-retroviral drugs for the people who come to her
clinic? These matters weigh on us. I can’t think of another bodily substance that penetrates our hearts and minds so profoundly.

In this book, I will approach blood from five different angles — all of which fascinate me personally and fuel my own obsessions. I will touch from time to time on the physical properties of blood, and on its intersections with medicine, both ancient and modern. Beyond how blood functions in the body, I am interested in how it weighs on the human mind, and how it influences our perception of who we are, to whom we belong, and how we experience our own humanity.

In chapter one, I will explore how our own notions of blood have evolved over thousands of years, share an overview about its nature and functions, address some of the different ways that blood defines men and women, and ponder how our own blood betrays us.

Chapter two will investigate how blood reflects our deepest notions of truth, honesty, and morality. When blood spills, we demand — in literature and in reality — that it exert a downstream effect. There should be consequences, which satisfy us morally. You can’t just go spilling blood without cause or effect. Changing the nature or composition of our blood, as well as how we give and receive it, sometimes raises not a single eyebrow, and at other times it incites trenchant judgement. Our response to alterations of blood points to some of our most enduring values, so chapter two will ponder some of the more provocative aspects of changing our blood in medicine and in sport.

BOOK: Blood
3.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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