Percy Julian — inventor of birth control pills and much more

For Too Many of Us, the User Experience Stinks

Most of us are brought up being taught if we work hard and follow the rules, we will have successful, happy lives. Hundreds of millions either already know, or are beginning to realize, this is untrue.

African American people are concerned about the school to prison pipeline; rightly-so.

Women should be concerned about the school to single motherhood and low-wage work to early grave pipeline.

Many times, people point to successful individuals as reasons that “anyone” can do “anything” they desire. I believe that two of the most influential people of the 20th century are Temple Grandin and Percy Julian. Their work and lives, I think, have done more good for others than hundreds of others whose names come more readily to mind.

In one person, Temple Grandin combines the facts: a female can excel in science, engineering, technology or math; a person with a serious cognitive difference (autism) may also succeed in all fields of endeavor. Both aspects of her nature, as well as others, I believe, are reasons for her success against all odds.

In one person, Percy Julian combines the facts: a black man can excel in science, engineering, technology or math; a person experiencing extreme racism and trauma may also succeed. Who he was born and where he was born, as well as other aspects of his nature, I believe, are reasons for his success against all odds.

Percy Julian and Temple Grandin are notable not only because they are members of groups that have had, and continue, to have to fight to just participate in certain fields of endeavor. One way I believe both are notable and have been very important, is because their natures and upbringing encouraged them to integrate the natural world into their work in a way that others have not, and do not.

Temple Grandin is an autistic woman who experienced extreme prejudice, mockery and obstacles for being autistic, and for being female. She speaks often of how her autism enabled her to not just “think in pictures,” but also to “think like a prey animal.” These thought processes enabled her to design humane slaughterhouses.

Percy Julian is an African American man who experienced direct racist violence and many other forms of extreme racism. As a young boy, Percy was walking in the woods near his home, as he often did, but on one day, he came suddenly across a young black man, hanging dead from a tree. Immediately after, he saw a rattlesnake. For many years after, Percy said, he associated white folks with snakes, and when looking at white men, would involuntarily see upon their faces, the face of a rattlesnake.

Have times changed? Yes. Even one generation before Percy Julian, and two before Temple Grandin, neither’s life and work would have been possible. Go back a bit farther; neither may have survived if they stepped outside their expected roles. Temple would likely have been locked in a mental institution, or, as her family was wealthy, perhaps simply locked in a room and hidden from public view.

Percy Julian’s “best case” scenario during slavery may have been to invent better ways of farming or controlling pests. Likely today, we would be reading about the great innovations of a plantation slave owner — the real inventor long forgotten.

Many will look at these two and see them as signs of amazing success and human “progress.” Now that time has given me a better perspective on the name we give to “morality,” I realize that despite the spectacular gifts they have given the world, the world did not repay them anything like in kind. Percy Julian is called “The Forgotten Genius.” Temple Grandin, while famous, is seldom lauded for the astonishing excellence of her work without mention of her autism.

There is only one Temple Grandin. According to Autism Speaks, as many as 1 in 50 children on the Autism Spectrum are attending U.S. schools. This is not the only cognitive difference for which a student might receive — or not receive — supportive services in school. According to CNN, there are nearly 57 million disabled people in the U.S. Only 41% of them are employed — less than the 50% who were employed in 1991 when the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. Among those under age 25 with disabilities, the unemployment rate is a stunning 80 percent.

Among African-Americans, the unemployment rate is double the rate for whites. The African-American college graduation rate, at 42 percent, is 20 percent below the rate for white students. All combined as of 2014, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Alaska Natives made up 10 percent of all individuals employed in STEM fields.

The racist, gender-biased and abilist answer to all this is “Well, those people just aren’t good enough.” A more subtle, insidious and cruel, in the sense that it masquerades as ‘kindness’ answer is that “those people need extra help.” But such extra “help” may often direct students away from the areas of endeavor where they could best excel.

I can only answer on a personal basis. I directed myself away from science and math careers despite straight-A grades and a perfect score on standardized tests because I wanted dates. I wanted to be able to marry and have children. I also didn’t want to be made fun of as a geek or nerd, as some of my friends were. Even the “nerdy” girls I knew in school eventually got married and left their careers. As it was, just doing well as a writer in blind-submission contests against male students got me raped by a male professor. Winning an award as a female sci-fi author got me slapped and grossly insulted at a public award ceremony. Falling in love and trying to marry another writer who’d also faced discrimination got me accused of murdering my own baby by a man who was jealous of my partner’s success and chance at happiness.

So I am not as strong as Percy Julian was, to grit down the hooded racists who who firebombed his house in Oak Park, Illinois not once, but twice, and the sanctimonious faculty members who denied him tenure and denied he was ten times the chemist they ever thought of being. Nor am I as strong as Temple Grandin, to endure and survive the incredible mockery and cruel teasing she did while young, and the on-the-job sabotage and malfeasance she did as an adult.

Today, people feel guilty for throwing away plastic garbage bags. It seems quite difficult to ask people to have a second thought as to in how many areas, how many lives are thrown away, how much talent, and how much opportunity we cede on a daily basis.

How is our refusal to consider any type of change in how we educate, live, pay people, and foster creativity and work sustainable? Would we have global warming, cancer, an unsustainable economy and horrible income inequality if we didn’t have this seemingly permanent gap in who gets to do what, who hears about work that could benefit them in their endeavors, and how we think about not just sci, tech and engineering, but also art, writing and music?

Can we change at all? Will any of this ever change?

Yes. But it seems so slow. We could be a little better off than the Puritans of old. They lived in houses lit by lamps fueled by whale oil, which was obtained by slaughtering sperm whales and boiling down their blubber. They ate the same food every day, wore the same clothes, thought the same thoughts. They strode through streets clogged with horse and cow dung. Their eyes were not on the divine but on each other — always watching for the least sign of weakness.

This is still the default for most people today, only instead of whale oil, we use fossil fuel. Most people wear the same clothes, think the same thoughts, and drive, not walk, through streets where we see and hear little of what goes on around us. We still live in a world where one must battle odds, opposition and brutality that most of us can barely fathom to persevere and achieve what Percy Julian or Temple Grandin did.

All because some people’s momentary emotional and intellectual comfort outweighs the betterment of all.

According to Harlan Ellison and my grandmother, “You’ll go far Amy, because you have heart.” Author of 40 books, former exec., Nebula Award nominee, Poor.

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