I walk with leg braces and a cane. Not long ago, a busker with a mic and a giant white tuba was booming a tune near the Dupont Circle Metro (D.C.) station. From a distance, I briefly gawked at the tuba. I thought other people would do the same. Then I saw that their eyes were in fact glued on me. Frankly, sometimes I just want to pick up a few tacos in peace. But other times are for rocking the difference - in a dress, on the bus, at the job and in changing hearts, minds and policies.
So I eagerly approached Keah Brown’s essay collection, “The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me.” That frothy title has fight and pain in it. Brown, 27, is a debut author with cerebral palsy who is working to change how disabled people are viewed - when we are included at all - in popular entertainment and society generally.
Brown was already an accomplished freelance journalist and writer when she created the hashtag #DisabledandCute in a Twitter post in February 2017. It went viral, leading to an agent and this book. Her recent magazine writing includes a cover profile of Brie Larson for Marie Claire UK and a cover story on disabled models in the fashion industry for Teen Vogue. She watches TV, writes and interviews people while sitting on her bed or at a desk at home in western New York, where she lives with her mother, sister and brother.
“I don’t mind being an inspiration if it is for a valid reason, such as admiring how many slices of pizza I ate, an essay or an article I wrote, my clothing choices, or how quickly I can learn the lyrics to songs,” Brown writes in the introduction. “As long as the inspiration doesn’t come with pity or self-congratulatory pats on the back, I am all for it.”
Brown is emotionally honest - sometimes devastatingly so - but knows to put readers at ease first with relatable-girlfriend charm and playful, fizzy humor. She makes the opening essay, “Can We Sit for a Sec?,” a half-joking paean to seats where she can rest: “My longest relationship has been with chairs,” she begins. “We are very happy together, committed and strong, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” In “You Can’t Cure Me, I Promise It’s Fine,” she conjures up an imagined Disability Be Gone! mart that sells quack cures.
When the subject is pop culture, Brown’s sharp writing achieves the Venn diagram center of her interests. “Black people with disabilities are all but invisible. We simply don’t exist” in TV and in movies, she writes in “Pop Culture & Me: A (Sometimes) Unrequited Love Story.” She dreams of living in Los Angeles, “employed in a writers’ room of a show that I love with the ability to create a nuanced disabled woman who experiences the full spectrum of emotion but ultimately loves herself and doesn’t make disability her every waking thought.”
Brown identifies herself as a disabled black woman, a proud feminist, a sister, daughter, aunt, niece, friend, and cousin and a human being. “We are free from the expectations of others when we choose to be fully who we are and choose how to label ourselves,” Brown says in “Is This Thing On?” Down to earth and fun, she is fluent in terms such as intersectionality, representation and marginalization: “We don’t talk enough about comfort and accessibility,” she points out. “The conversation hasn’t fully hit mainstream spaces, because they operate under the assumption that it is never an issue for anyone occupying space in the rooms where conversations about inclusion and representation happen.” As for the etiquette around adults staring, she comments dryly: “No one wants to feel like an animal at the zoo on display without choice, not even those animals at the zoo.”
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Even as Brown delves into race, feminism, rom-coms and red carpets, it is her personal experience of life with disabilities that ties this collection together, giving it an authoritative immediacy, a beauty. “I grew up hating mirrors,” she writes. “My happiness and joy are still relatively new because I started embracing them only four years ago.” Her cerebral palsy affects the right side of her body; she also has chronic migraines, seasonal depression and anxiety.
Tasks like “clasping pants, opening bottles, zipping jackets, carrying more than one thing at a time and balancing myself” are daunting for her, she explains in “Freedom of a Ponytail.” Doing her own ponytail became a mission after she graduated from college. She studied YouTube tutorials, then practiced in secret in tears for weeks. “It was one of the first times I did not give up on myself even in the midst of all my self-loathing at my first failed attempt,” Brown writes. “Looking back, I can see that it was a monumental decision, because it was so different from who I was otherwise at the time.” On a Wednesday in April 2016, she finally mastered the ponytail: It felt “like a revolutionary act, a celebration of disability and of me.”
In the title essay, Brown muses, “as a disabled person, living in a disabled body, I am not supposed to be beautiful, but I have been proving people wrong all my life, so why stop now?” With this engaging and necessary collection, she asks us to think from a deeper place - and gets me to totally smile.