THE PRETTY ONE, the celebrated new personal essay collection by first-time author and #DisabledAndCute founder Keah Brown, is powerful guide for change. A millennial African-American writer with cerebral palsy, Brown wants us to know her as a multi-faceted person with a disability, who is deeply interested in movies, television and music. As an activist, she works to replace outdated stereotypes about the disabled community and people of color, and help the world see them as the multi-faceted human beings they are. THE PRETTY ONE is her story from self-loathing to self-love. An excerpt plus Q&A between the author and AFLW’s Senior Nonfiction Editor Christina Simon on writing, Roxane Gay, pop culture, coming out, public goal-setting and more.
THE PRETTY ONE
POP CULTURE & ME: A (SOMETIMES) UNREQUITED LOVE STORY
My childhood was filled with joy and wonder because of my ability to see and know stories like these. I felt seen and heard without really knowing what impact these depictions would have on me until I was much older. These stories and these people were my introduction to popular culture, and what a beautiful and exciting introduction it was. As a child I marveled at the black people in their bodies on my TV and VHS tapes. Bodies that were nothing like mine in the way that they could and would pick up things with their hands without pause, run and walk long distances, but still, we shared the same skin, and so I loved them a little more for it, cheered a little harder when they reached their happily-ever-after endings. These movies allowed me to love my black skin long before the world would try to convince me not to. I know that we all have a tendency to romanticize the past, and maybe I am doing so, but I think of that time of movies and television as the years that allowed me to be unapologetically black. I saw that same energy reflected back to me so often that I never had to question it, and I didn’t even think about it as a thing I could lose.
As the landscape of television and popular culture changed, so did I. At the close of the nineties we saw fewer black people on our TV screens, and as a result I was left to find ways to connect to white and nonblack characters like Rory Gilmore and Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls, the characters in Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, The OC, and Gossip Girl. There were also kids’ shows like Zoey 101, Lizzie Mc–Guire, Even Stevens, and the like. I did not take the time to examine what impact watching shows with majority-white characters would have on me as I was watching them. Aside from That’s So Raven and Sister, Sister, what I consumed during the nineties and early aughts was white-centered media. I watched white teenagers misbehave, fall in and out of love, and deal with drugs and guns on The OC, The Hills, Laguna Beach, and The City. In all fairness, I was young and I just gravitated toward what was popular, which happened to be majority-white TV and film. It wasn’t that I sought out whiteness but that whiteness was usually the only option for me to enjoy. But as we often do when we are older and hopefully wiser, I now wonder why I felt such a pull toward these shows when they were among others on a list too long to mention. The only answer I can come up with is that I loved them because they reflected back to me an unwavering longing for more. The longing I felt when watching them was a longing only for their characters’ ability to travel, their closets of clothes, their love lives, and their financial stability. Of course, I am going to be honest and tell you that I still want these things, but I think that a part of me bought into the idea that in order to have it all, I would have to be as close to whiteness as possible. The idea was flawed for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I would absolutely have lost myself in the process.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing myself in these characters and I loved these shows, but after high school, I became more aware of what I was not seeing. This is not to say that I didn’t watch majority-white shows anymore. In fact, there were some MTV shows, Glee, Pretty Little Liars, and a few more with some people of color sprinkled in. What changed after high school was the realization that if I, like many other black people, was able to see myself in white characters, why weren’t white execs and showrunners able to see themselves in people who looked like me in order to give us the attention and agency these white and nonblack characters had? And it wasn’t as though nonblack characters had the best story lines anyway. That’s the thing about fighting for scraps: you don’t even realize that the scraps are useless until you’re close enough to see the imperfections. I saw some nonblack people of color on some of my favorite white-led shows, but I wouldn’t say that Lane had what she deserved in the later seasons of Gilmore Girls. The writing of her and her resulting life was disappointing back then. Regardless, despite the positive changes toward inclusion being made now, I still find myself asking this very question when it comes to my being disabled: When will all of me be good enough to be seen by lovers of entertainment and popular culture like myself? When can I expect someone like me to be messy and imperfect and loved still, to be rooted for and championed through mistakes, only to captivate the audience regardless?
My love for television only intensified as I grew into a woman who has enough shows each night of the week to fall in love with. Shows that now give me what the others I loved in the past did, but also with the inclusion that they were missing. I love that our entertainment has changed with the times as we learn and grow as a society. That is the magic of entertainment. I refuse to be one of those writers who scoff at the idea of watching TV or doing anything besides reading historical books or what have you. I am a black woman who loves watching The Fosters (before and after it ended) and NBC’s Good Girls on Monday. Tuesdays are for The Flash and iZombie on the CW and Younger on TV Land, because who doesn’t love forty- year-olds pretending to be twenty-five and superheroes and zombie consultants/medical examiners? There was also Shadowhunters and Kevin (Probably) Saves the World (before they were unjustly canceled). Some of these shows conflict with each other, so DVR is my best friend. On Wednesdays, I rest, but Thursday is for the Shondaland Empire, The Good Place, Superstore, and Will and Grace. Fridays are for Bring It! on Lifetime and Jane the Virgin. I have a real soft spot for Jane the Virgin because I love Gina Rodriguez (and because I once got to interview Justin Baldoni, who plays Rafael—swoon). Since Orphan Black had its series finale, my weekends are clear, apart from Killing Eve on BBC America, which stars Sandra Oh. Killing Eve is one of the best shows on television right now. The kinds of shows I love are the ones that just keep being able to reinvent themselves. Netflix is another thing entirely. I watch Stranger Things, Grace and Frankie, One Day at a Time, Dear White People, Alexa & Katie, Bojack Horseman, and more. If I am not binge-watching those shows when they are live on the streaming site, I aim to read and write on the weekends—but TV still manages to reign supreme.
Excerpted from THE PRETTY ONE with permission from the author.
Q&A Between Keah Brown and Christina Simon
Christina Simon: It was great meeting you at The Jane Club in Los Angeles for your book tour debut. That evening, you were in conversation with Roxane Gay, talking about THE PRETTY ONE. It was such a delight to hear the two of you delve into everything from race, feminism, writing, disability, ableism, pop culture—and even a hilarious bit about Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of HGTV’s show Fixer Upper. You have such a great rapport with Roxane, as if you’re longtime friends. When did you first meet her and how did she become such a champion of your work?
Keah Brown: Thank you! That was such a dream come true. I’ve been such a fan of hers for so long. We first met very briefly in 2018, I went to her book signing at the University of Buffalo and I absolutely had no chill. Then, I wrote something for a pop-up magazine that she had with Medium that would become Gay Magazine, and then we had dinner before my book came out when I was in Los Angeles, it was lovely and she’s lovely. For the event to happen, I emailed Roxane and asked her if she would mind being in conversation with me and she surprisingly said yes! I feel so very blessed to finally have met someone who means so much to me but to be able to now call them a friend, it’s a gift. To have her as a champion of my work, really keeps me going more days than not. It’s nice to just remember that someone I admire is rooting for me, it really helps.
CS: Your book is infused with your signature sense of humor, but your voice is also searingly honest and at times, incredibly vulnerable. Was it difficult to move seamlessly back and forth between funny and serious?
KB: I will say that the last three essays in the book were the hardest ones to write but I don’t think it was hard for me to move between them because that’s just how my personality is, I can switch between funny and serious very easily. I wanted people to be able to feel both happy and sad while reading the book. I wanted them to experience a variety of emotions so I felt like I had to be as vulnerable as possible to get people to open up and be willing to do the same while reading the book. I’m very glad I did and I’m very glad that people have been taking this journey with me.
CS: You write that “Disabled bodies are often used to make the able-bodied feel better about their own bodies.” You’ve also said you don’t want to serve as “inspiration porn.” What constitutes a more nuanced, evolved discussion about disability?
KB: I love this question so much. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I just as a consumer but also as a person who is working on creative things outside of books now, maybe some movies or TV shows that’s the dream. So, in my opinion what constitutes a more nuanced and evolved discussion about disability starts with treating disabled characters like they are real people outside of just the disability that they have. I find that most portrayals spend too much time making everything about the disability so much so that the character stops being a person and just becomes the disability that they are. Disabilities are part of us but they are not all that we are and so to start the process of a nuanced and evolved discussion around disability we must acknowledge that they exist and infuse them as a part of the person not make them all that they are.
I also just want to see disabled characters who look like me. Disability happens to people who are not white and male as well.
CS: You recently came out as bisexual. Were there writers or other prominent figures like Ellen DeGeneres who inspired you to share this? What does it feel like to be part of another, new community as a writer?
KB: Absolutely. I’m sure you remember my campaign to get on “Ellen” in 2017, I’ve been watching her show for years and seeing her live out loud, has helped give me the courage to do so too. Writers like Ashley C. Ford, Roxane and Danez Smith, publications like Out, Logo, Them, inspired me to come out and my queer and straight friends, encouraged and loved me when I did come out and when I was just thinking about doing it.
It feels very good to be my most honest self with the world now and to enter this community being supported and eager to write about what this old identity but new to the world means to me.
CS: The cover of the book features your viral hashtag, #DisabledandCute, which you created in February 2017. In your Introduction, you call the hashtag “the real star” and credit its rise for helping you get an agent and land a book deal. Did having a big, dedicated Twitter following make it easier to write your book, knowing your followers have been right there with you, supporting the work you’re doing? How do you deal with Twitter haters and trolls?
KB: No, it doesn’t make it easier. Because haters and trolls are so loud. When I wrote that I wrote it as a joke because I knew that I had done so much work as a writer and journalist outside of the hashtag. My regret is not making that clear that it was a joke because the trolls just ran with it and convinced themselves that the only thing that I have going for me is a big following and a hashtag. Writing the book was scary but I knew that I desperately wanted to do it and that it was one of my dreams so I did it and I’m very glad that I did it but nothing really made it easier except music. The thing with big Twitter followings is that they don’t guarantee books sales and so I never looked at it as a guaranteed anything I just knew that I needed to tell the stories and if given the opportunity to tell them, I would do so in the way that would make me happy first.
I have a very core group of followers across social media that were so supportive since day one. Pre-ordering multiple copies and championing me when I started to doubt myself and for that I am immensely grateful.
I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with haters and trolls. I will not pretend it’s easy or that I can just let it slide off because some days, I let it get to me but then I remember that there are more people in my corner rooting for me then there are people rooting against me and I’m rooting for me and so whatever I work hard at is going to come to fruition because I’ve got the talent, the drive, and the willingness to keep going when things get rough.
CS: You are both a writing critic and fan of pop culture—movies, television, music—but in your essay, “Pop Culture and Me: A (Sometimes) Unrequited Love Story,” excerpted here, you write that you have yet to see a black disabled woman in mainstream media. You point out that when disabled people are portrayed in the media, they usually hate themselves, are fodder for jokes and die at the end of the show. What needs to happen so that we can see people like yourself represented as in pop culture as characters who have major storylines in which their disabilities aren’t the entire focus? What shows are you watching right now? Who are you listening to?
KB: I love this question. I’m going to break this down. I think what needs to happen is that we need to have disabled people writing these characters because problem one is that they’re being written by non-disabled people of people who know one person who is disabled and it is fueling characterization by this idea that we need to be pitied or felt sorry for her because how could we live our lives like this? But if we can have disabled people writing these characters and creating these characters there would be nuance and joy and fun and excitement that is missing so often when we have these characters who just hate themselves and nothing else. I won’t pretend that disability is easy or that sometimes we don’t end up hating ourselves but I think when that’s the only narrative that we see that creates a problem because it tells us that we should hate ourselves but I don’t hate myself and I don’t want anyone else to.
The shows I am watching right now: Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, the Charmed reboot, Almost Family, the Party of Five reboot, Superstore, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina season three on Netflix, Schitt’s Creek, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. I just finished Grace and Frankie. And those are just my favorites.
I am listening to: Demi Lovato, Paramore, Hayley Williams solo singles, Harry Styles’ new album, Taylor Swift’s new album, Doja Cat, Billie Eilish, Lewis Capaldi, Aisha Dee, Jonas Brothers, Tracy Chapman, Bree Runaway, Beyoncé, Normani, Maddie and Tae, Aly & AJ, Kehlani, Celine Dion, “A Little Bit Alexis” from Schitt’s Creek by Annie Murphy.
CS: What has the success of THE PRETTY ONE meant for you personally and professionally? Can you talk about milestones that have happened since the book’s release, such as being featured on the TODAY show? You publicly share goals for yourself on social media. What’s next for you? What are some of your goals for 2020?
KB: Personally, the goal was to get the book done and that was the personal success. Professionally I’ve had some really cool things happen but I really wanted a bestseller‘s list and I didn’t get it. So that was a bummer. However, I was on the TODAY show so that was really freaking cool and I did a spot on Channel 2 and both the today show and Channel 2 were so kind and so nice and it was a dream that I never thought to think of as a dream because I never thought it possible and then it happened and I feel like anything is possible now I’m not going to shortchange myself with my dreams anymore.
Buckle in because here’s what I want next:
I want to write and sell and have movies and TV shows made and aired.
I want to walk a red carpet in a custom Christian Siriano gown.
I want to be on a late-night talk show.
I want to write and sell a novel.
I want to meet Oprah.
I want to meet Ellen.
I want to fall in love a few times.
I want to write more poetry.
I want a custom-made power suit.
Keah Brown is a journalist, freelance writer, author of the personal essay collection, THE PRETTY ONE, and the creator of #DisabledAndCute viral hashtag. She has written about the hashtag and about living with cerebral palsy in Teen Vogue, Essence.com, Catapult, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar and Lenny Letter among other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The State University of New York at Fredonia and has a love for popular culture and cheesecake. She lives in Western New York with her family.