Keah Brown didn’t expect to go viral, like, ever.
A self-described nosy person, she received a journalism degree in 2013, retaining her love of writing. Her passion for the written word ultimately led to writing her own book, a memoir, titled The Pretty One.
“What led me to writing was just a love of telling stories and trying to figure out different ways to create characters and share them with the world, but also to explore how I was navigating the world,” Brown said. “A part of it was that I had spent so many years waiting for someone to tell a story like mine before realizing that I could also do it.”
Brown just started to feel good about herself and, as her natural impulse was to share this with others close to her, she created the hashtag #disabledandcute to commemorate her newfound self-love. What started as a way to celebrate Brown’s long-awaited comfort in her own body among close friends quickly snowballed into an unintentionally viral sensation.
“I’m finally feeling like I was worthy in my body just like this without needing to change it or hide the fact that I was disabled,” Brown said. “It was really just me celebrating, oh, I finally feel like a human being and I want to celebrate that. I want to give people the chance to see that I’m happy and see that it’s possible.”
Brown said that she wanted to show how she became content in her body to counteract the narratives portrayed in pop culture, in which disabled characters express self-hatred or suicidal thoughts linked to their disability, never to achieve self-acceptance.
“Doors started opening for me and people wanted to have conversations, and it really I feel like in some ways moved the needle in terms of how we were talking about disability, because before it was just, “oh it’s so hard” and, “it’s so sad,” Brown said. “And for me, this is a way for us to show the world, no, we all have happiness to enjoy. And it’s not like it’s just doom and gloom.”
Coming off of her newfound internet fame, Brown wanted to release a fiction book since she stuck by the beloved genre for years. But her trusted agent steered her in the opposite direction, encouraging her to continue sharing pieces of herself with the world, considering the warm reception she received from the hashtag.
“We sat down and he was like, you know, you do already have an audience for personal essays. You’ve been doing this for a while,” Brown said. “Maybe you should start there.”
Brown said her experience as a Black woman definitely influenced how she lived with her disability, and ultimately her personal essays. People often approach her, in-person and online, telling her they prayed for her, as if she had been in a horrible accident, or that they had a miraculous snake oil to “cure” her disability. Rather than just something she happened to be born with, her disability was viewed as a curse from God for previous misdoings, a belief frequently shared with Brown, unprompted.
“People just feel entitled to information about my diagnosis and my medical history in a really gross way,” Brown said. “I’m like, do you hear yourself, do you know that you’re talking to an actual person?“
Moving through both the Black and disabled communities remains a challenge for Brown, who takes issue as a Black, queer, disabled woman, with how either group handles intersectional identities. She shared her frustration with how uncomfortable the disability community is with race, as well as the frequent homophobia she runs into within the community. On the other hand, discussing disability in the Black community isn’t a walk in the park either.
“I’m either having to fight harder to talk about race in the disability community or having to find a way to talk about disability in the black community without it being jokes or, you know, anything that people can laugh at,” Brown said. “People really need to stop believing that disability or disabled is a bad word.“
Airports are Brown’s battleground. Since her cerebral palsy makes it difficult to walk long distances, she uses a wheelchair to travel the lengthy corridors. When she stands to finally walk onto the plane, she typically receives the passive-aggressive animosity of other passengers.
“I do find that people have a harder time believing that I’m disabled as a black woman than anything else,” Brown said. “The way that people, mostly white, look at me when I get out of a wheelchair and go to the plane like, oh, she’s like, I was faking it. And I’m like, no, you don’t understand the complexity of disability.”
Brown tries to stay understanding in the face of invasive questions people have about her disability, but also realizes that it’s not her job to educate the public.
“I’m like, listen, if I’m in the mall or at The Cheesecake Factory, or even at Walmart,” Brown said, “I don’t need someone random coming up to me.”
Brown does occasionally find the funny in these otherwise wildly offensive interactions.
“This one time actually that I got into a hot air balloon accident and that it was still too soon to talk about,” Brown said. “And she was so mad because she knew I was lying. She couldn’t say anything.”
Brown thought of her memoir, The Pretty One, as an apology letter to her younger self, buckled down by the shame she used to experience as a disabled young woman while expressing her simultaneous pride in how far she has come.
“It was really just me exploring my younger self honestly, and thinking about what my younger self needed and how she could have benefited from something like this,” Brown said. “It was really just me apologizing to my younger self because once I started to feel really good about myself, I never wanted to talk about how I had ever felt bad and how I had ever come to a place where I began to hate myself in the first place.”
Writing the book became healing for Brown, as she began to realize that she could finally be honest with herself through the pages of her essays. While she became used to leaving it all on the page and credits her openness to the many bylines she’s gathered over the years, she ultimately realized that she could keep some things to herself, without the narrative suffering in the end.
The unexpected power of recording the audiobook version of The Pretty One caught Brown off guard, making the emotional phases of her life that she wrote about in the past that much more real. Recording the portion about her grandmother and uncle passing away in 2009 and 2014, respectively, brought Brown to tears in a way that writing about them had not.
“Reading the audiobook, the last three chapters of the book, I just wept all the way through. I don’t know how they got something out of it,” Brown said. “I think the most surprising thing to me was like after I wrote it and performing it for the audiobook, it was just a completely different ballgame.”
Upon The Pretty One‘s release, Brown also wrestled with the expectations she had for her book and the reality that followed. When the book didn’t make the New York Times bestseller list, she felt as if she had failed as an author, if she could even call herself one. Yet, the recent readership that the book has gotten reminds her of the impact her writing has had on others, which softens the self-inflicted blow she dealt herself upon its release.
“I think every time someone comes out like, they come to me saying I read your book and I’ve been watching you, [or] they reach out for interviews this many years later, it’s really nice to be reminded that it is has found the people it’s supposed to,” Brown said. “Just because it’s sort of like every writer has this dream of being on the New York Times bestseller list. So being able to step back from that and being like this book still holds value first and a really nice adjustment and surprise.”
Brown glows with a visible hope that everyone comes to accept themselves one day. She believes in it so much, in fact, that the same attitude spilled over into The Pretty One, with the sole goal of encouraging others to be brave enough to like themselves.
“I want them to take away the fact that we are all capable of starting a journey towards self-love or even just the idea of [we’re] all worthy of liking ourselves, loving ourselves. We all deserve that,” Brown said.
Brown realizes that the journey to self-love isn’t a walk in the park, but she believes that it’s one everyone should try and take, no matter where they are in life.
“It’s not easy, but I hope people know that it’s an everyday process. I’m still searching for things, doing things that remind me that I’m worthy of love every day because it’s an everyday process, but it’s a process that is worthy of the work,” Brown said. “There’s no rush to it; hopefully, you get to it sooner rather than later because you deserve to be as happy as the next person.”