Black History Month: Celebrating Lois, Solange, and Octavia
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For Black History Month, we’re celebrating three Black women who have each been changemakers in their own way:
Science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler, who had undiagnosed dyslexia
Grammy winner Solange Knowles, who has ADHD
Activist Lois Curtis, whose Supreme Court victory was a landmark case in the disability rights movement
Learn about these pioneering women from three friends of The Opportunity Gap. Each of these presenters has been on the podcast before and deserves to be celebrated for their own advocacy work:
Poet LeDerick Horne
Community organizer Atira Roberson
Black Boy Thrive founder Busola Saka
Solange Knowles: Role model for African American performers with disabilities
Lois Curtis, whose lawsuit secured disability rights, dies at 55
Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host.
Julian: We have a very special episode of "The Opportunity Gap." Since it's Black History Month, we want to highlight some amazing Black women with different disabilities. Each of them has impacted the world in their own unique way, whether it's performing across the globe, writing futuristic science fiction stories, or fighting against injustice. The reason why we celebrate these Black pioneers is to remember all the contributions, sacrifices, and key roles that changed lives throughout history and today. We have to remember that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. We would not be here without the work of all of these pioneers. This podcast would not exist without the work that they've put in. And so, we want to give them their flowers today.
In this episode, we're also going to pass the mic to some of our friends from the podcast. The people you're hearing today are disability activists in their own right and deserve to be celebrated for their work as well. First, I would like to introduce Busola Saka from Black Boy Thrive, a grassroots platform that is all about advocating for black boys who face discrimination in school. She understands this experience firsthand and is building a community with other parents facing the same challenges. Today we have Busola and her son Jimi, who just turned eight and who is the inspiration for Black Boy Thrive. They're going to tell us all about the phenomenal story of the late, great science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. Take it away, Busola.
Busola: Thanks, Julian. I'm so thrilled to share Octavia's story because I believe stories show us the lives of different people and exposes us to different ways of living and different challenges that people face. For example, I love to read. I'm an avid reader and I encourage my children to read as well. We spend a lot of our leisure time reading different books. Jimi, do you know what science fiction is?
Jimi: Science with imagination.
Busola: Science with imagination. That's right. Octavia was really good at it. She was one of the first Black people and one of the first women to write these kinds of books. And she had dyslexia. Here's her story. Octavia E. Butler was an award-winning science fiction author whose stories explore themes of global warming, injustice, women's rights, and is perhaps most well-known for writing characters of color into futuristic worlds where they have historically been excluded.
Born in Pasadena, California, in 1947, Octavia was raised by her mother and grandmother as the civil rights movement was beginning to gain ground. Octavia was incredibly shy as a child, and despite great intelligence, she had a very hard time in school where she struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia and was bullied by other kids. Is bullying okay?
Jimi: No, sirree.
Busola: No, sirree. Octavia wrote in her personal diaries "When my dyslexia became a problem in school … my teachers told my mother that I was lazy and just not trying." She found her outlet through imagination and self-expression, writing short stories, reading, and spending as much time as she could at the public library. Octavia was determined to become a professional writer, but she struggled for decades to get her stories published in an industry where Black central characters, themes of political injustice, climate change, and women's rights weren't seen as commercially viable. To get by, Octavia worked odd jobs as a telemarketer, potato chip inspector, and dishwasher. Do you think it'd be fun to be a potato chip inspector?
Jimi: Yes. Is Doritos potato chips?
Busola: No, I don't think so. But if you were looking inspecting potato chips, what would you look for?
Busola: And you want to make sure that there's no burnt parts, right? So, that's what Octavia did. She inspected potato chips to make sure they were okay. While Octavia was working these kinds of odd jobs, she'd wake up at every day at 2 a.m. to write. Eventually, she published her first novel, "Pattern Maker," and expanded it into a five-part series. She went on to write popular novels such as "Kindred," "Blood Child," and many more, changing expectations about science fiction and paving the way for many other black authors in the genre. She received many awards for her books, one of them being the first-ever science fiction author to receive the MacArthur Genius grant.
Octavia Butler passed away in 2006 and leaves behind a legacy of using literature to challenge racial stereotypes and white privilege. She once said in an interview to PBS, "Do the thing that you love, and do it as well as you possibly can and be persistent about it."
Julian: Thank you so much, Jimi and Busola. I love the commentary about the potato chip inspecting. It definitely interested me too. I have to say, it makes me just so happy that we're highlighting Octavia. She had dyslexia, yet she was able to become an author. I also remember as a child, reading some of her books, like my mom was even into her books way back in the day. "Kindred" was something that was on our coffee table. And the fact that she was able to highlight all of these amazing Black characters in the science fiction genre is just a testament to the power of her creativity. So, shout out and flowers go to Octavia Butler.
The next woman we want to highlight for Black History Month is Lois Curtis. And to tell her story, we have our good friend, LeDerick Horne. LeDerick is a poet, author, professional speaker, disability rights advocate, and special education consultant. Welcome, LeDerick.
LeDerick: Hey Julian. I'm glad to be back on the show to shine a light on an incredible activist and to highlight the impact of an amazing woman. Lois Curtis was a visual artist and an advocate for disability rights. Her lawsuit against the state of Georgia fought to end the practice of segregating people with disabilities, and her Supreme Court victory stands as a major accomplishment of the disability rights movement. Lois grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, in the '70s. She was born with intellectual and developmental disabilities that her family were under-resourced to support on their own.
As a child, Lois often wandered from home, and in an effort to get her daughter more care, her mother eventually called emergency services, which unfortunately led to her being institutionalized at the Georgia Regional Hospital starting at the age of 11. Her doctors said there was no reason for her to be there, but the state did not allocate any funding so she could live in her community. During the years she was living in the hospital, Lois experienced a low quality of life and was treated with psychiatric medication that kept her heavily sedated. A social worker introduced her to a lawyer at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. And Lois' first question for the lawyer was, "When am I getting out of here?"
Through the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Lois found a way to fight for her right to live in her own community. In 1995, Lois filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia, claiming discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that services need to be provided in an integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the individual. The setting Lois was living in was not only degrading to her quality of life, it was a civil rights violation. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Lois' favor in 1999.
Eventually, she was able to move into her own apartment with community support and focus on her art. Lois is best known for her portrait pieces. She even presented one of her self-portraits to President Barack Obama. Lois Curtis passed away in the fall of 2022 and leaves behind a profound legacy for all people with disabilities. Her legal victory ensures that regardless of state funding, people with disabilities cannot be unjustly segregated.
One of the reasons why I love Lois Curtis's story is because she had a vision for her life that was so big, living in that hospital, there was really no path before her to be able to get her out and living in her community. But she held on to that vision and fought very hard with the support of allies to make that vision a reality. And I remember being in special ed as a teenager, coming up with this crazy idea that I was going to go to college someday, and I didn't see a path for it. No one had explained to me what transition services were, that there were supports for folks with learning disabilities on a college setting. But I held on to that dream, too.
And so, I think that she's this incredible source of inspiration for all of us that have a vision for our own lives or for the future of our nation or the future of this world, that through fight and through collaboration, we can all work to make that vision a reality.
Julian: Thank you so much, LeDerick. I remember a couple of weeks back where I read her obituary and it just sparked an idea that, you know, we need to put out the information about all of these amazing advocates that we don't really hear about or learn about as much. So, thank you so much, Lois, for all the work that you've done. And we hope that we've done you justice.
Our last story is about someone who might not need an introduction, Solange Knowles, and to share her story, we have our good friend, Atira Roberson. Atira is a community organizer at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. She's worked with different organizations, including Understood.org. She's also been very open about her own learning and thinking differences. Okay, Atira. You got it.
Atira: Hey, Julian. Thank you. Thank you so much for allowing me to come back on a special episode of "The Opportunity Gap." So, today I get the chance to read to you a little bit about Miss Solange Knowles. Solange Knowles is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who was born in 1986 in Houston, Texas. Solange was born into a family of musicians and became an artist in her own right from a very young age. At just 13 years old, Solange was performing as a backup dancer with Destiny's Child. And at 16, she was creating her own music and acting in both film and TV. It was Solange's Grammy-winning album, "A Seat at the Table," which solidified her status as an icon and champion of Black pride. This album spoke about empowerment, joy, self-love, trauma, and Black rage.
What Solange means to me as an artist, she is not your typical run-of-the-mill R&B artist. One of my favorite songs from her is "Cranes in the Sky." She's absolutely amazing. I love her voice. It's different, her energy and everything. I love it so much.
Many people don't know this, but Solange was diagnosed with ADHD. She didn't quite believe her diagnosis at first. Solange has said "I didn't believe the first doctor who told me. I had a whole theory that ADHD was just something they invented to make you pay for medicine. But then the second doctor told me I had it." Opening up about her ADHD has made Solange a role model to many people in the black community.
So, when I think about what it means to me to know that Solange Knowles has ADHD, it makes me feel like, and furthermore confirms, that I am not alone in having someone, a celebrity at that who looks like me. A Black girl, hashtag Black girls have ADHD. You know, we're out there, we're thriving. We're not just surviving. Because if she can do it, you know, so can I, because someone out there, a little Black girl, a little Black boy, needs to see that this is what ADHD looks like. It looks like you. It looks like me and it looks like Solange Knowles. And you can not only have it, but you can have it and thrive. Having such a widely admired artist open up about being neurodiverse will lead to more acceptance and more encouragement for people to embrace their own differences.
Busola: Don't touch my hair.
Julian: Oh, Solange, Solange, Solange. Thank you so much for being an advocate for ADHD. Somebody like yourself who is able to come out and speak openly about ADHD and own who you are and how it impacts your abilities is such a testament to who you are as a person. And we appreciate it. Atira, thank you so much. Thank you to all of our guests for joining us for this special episode.
All of our guests today have appeared on prior episodes of the show. If you want to find out more information about them, please check out our show notes.
I want to leave you with a quote from Octavia E. Butler and to help me out with this, I'm going to pass the mic back to our youngest guest, Jimi.
Jimi: All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. Our only lasting truth is change. Happy Black History Month.
Julian: You've been listening to "The Opportunity Gap" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Is there a topic you'd like us to cover? We want to hear from you. Email us at OpportunityGap@understood.org.
If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.
"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Julie Rawe, edited by Cin Pim. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
Julian Saavedra, MA
is an assistant principal in a public school in Philadelphia.