Let Freedom ReignA Roundtable About Disabled Black Girl Magic

an illustration of a dark-skinned Black girl with an afro in a wheelchair holding up a star, and a background of many stars

Illustration by Ananya Rao-Middleton

When CaShawn Thompson created #BlackGirlMagic in 2013, it was meant to be celebratory—to spotlight and honor the Black women often left in the margins, including impoverished Black women, dark-skinned Black women, and disabled Black women. Though the phrase has been both commodified and picked apart over the years, its essence remains. And few people embody the spirit of its message more than Keah Brown and Vilissa Thompson, both writers and disability activists. In this conversation for our Access issue, Brown and Thompson discuss the meaning of disabled Black girl magic and why it’s so important to center disability rights in feminism.

What does disabled Black girl magic mean to you?

Keah Brown: Well, for me it means joy, happiness, and the ability to show up as  my full self, without apology. Magic is just making sure I’m taking care of myself first and foremost and that I’m not doing something for the comfort of others.

Vilissa Thompson: For me it means just being in my fullness, being my magical and sometimes unmagical self, embracing my identities, embracing my quirkiness and geekiness—these things really matter to me. Disabled Black girl magic is being authentic to who we are, what matters to us, the way we live, the way we represent ourselves, and the way we want society to understand our stories and experiences. [It’s also about] how we want the world to see us [in ways] that go beyond the stereotypes. [Disabled Black girl magic] shows our essence, our messiness, our complicatedness, and the diversity of Black womanhood. That’s what it means to me: bringing our holistic self forward.

You grew up seeing very few images of disabled Black people in the media. How did that impact the way you viewed yourself as a young disabled Black girl, and does that impact the way you view yourself as a disabled Black woman?

VT: I had a unique childhood. [I grew up] in the Midlands area of South Carolina, and there was a reporter named Susan Audé Fisher, who now goes by Susan Audé, and she was a wheelchair user. She became paralyzed from an accident when she first began her career as a news reporter. She’s a white woman, but I [still got to] see her on TV in a wheelchair. I hadn’t really thought about her presence on TV until I got older and started doing this work, but it showed me that disabled people can do whatever kind of job we want.

She was everywhere as a local news reporter; she was reporting on major events in the state. When we had the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, she was one of the people to carry the torch. Her wheelchair had a little prop that they put the torch in, and she just rolled on the path with it. There was no inspirational porn attached to Susan and her visibility. Everybody respected her as a reporter, and she was really good at her job. That mattered to me as a young girl trying to figure out where I fit in. It may have also helped the adults around me to not box me in. No one questioned my desire to go to college. By the end of sophomore year [of high school], I was number one in my class, so college just felt like normal progression. The sky has always been the limit. I’ve been very blessed. My grandmother in particular really saw my gifts and talents and didn’t hinder me based on whatever limitations she may have heard from a doctor. I’m just thankful my grandmother was never one of those people who told me what I couldn’t do because I’m disabled.

KB: I didn’t have a Susan, so when I saw disabled people growing up, it was [often] in those disgusting, exploitative telethons where [the hose would] lean down to [disabled] people, talking for them, and saying, “Give them money. They’re suffering.” As a child, that made me feel isolated and alone, but I also had a family like yours, who never told me I couldn’t do something because I’m disabled. They never made me feel like I was different. My mom was very adamant about making sure I tried whatever my sister and brother tried. If they got skates, I had skates. If they had scooters, I had scooters. They got a bike, and we figured it out.

I’m so grateful for that now because I didn’t have somebody telling me, “Oh no, you couldn’t possibly do that.” But when I turned on the TV, I heard, “All you are is a prop [that we use] to make money. We’re not going to let you have a voice in your own telethon.” [There were also] those weird late-night holy water infomercials where they would sprinkle “holy water” on disabled people who would then get out of their wheelchair and walk. I spent a lot of my childhood uncomfortable with myself and my disability, but now that I’m a woman and I actually like the person I am, I’m so grateful I had a family that was like, “I’m not going to other you because you’re disabled.”

VT: When I was in [elementary school], I participated in school plays. Nobody made a big deal about me wanting to do that. I was treated like every other student, except [that sometimes I had to] to leave class to do physical therapy, occupational therapy, or have surgery. We hear a lot of stories about disabled people who were told “no” so much that it made them question what they could do. We’re bringing forward stories [about] those of us who were told “yes.” That really matters, particularly because Black people are constantly told “no.” To [have] lived these childhoods where we received the support we needed gave us confidence. That foundation was instrumental in getting us where we are today—confident, self-sufficient, independent, and also interdependent [in terms of] building community and supporting each other. That matters in so many ways.

KB: I agree. A lot of people I come across in the community don’t have the same sort of foundations that we have. It allows me now to feel like I can do whatever I want and [to feel that] I belong in every room I enter. It takes so much longer [to believe that about yourself] when people constantly tell you, “No, you can’t do that. You’ll never make it.”

VT: This may be a little controversial to say, but other folks in the space envy the type of confidence we have. They wish they had that type of confidence because, keep it 100, we have haters. We’re confident Black women, confident Black disabled women, and we’re queer on top of that. It’s like, where do you get the nerve to be confident, to be brave, to be loud, or to take up space? There’s a lot of tension there from folks who wish they had an ounce of that confidence or who have to belittle you to [feel] that confidence.

KB: Yep. At first it bothered me. I was like why? I didn’t even do anything. I’m just trying to show up and do what I want to do. But the more it happens, the more I’m like, that’s a you problem, not a me problem, and it shows me I’m doing the right things. I’m making the right choices for myself and going after my dreams. If that makes you uncomfortable, then you should examine why that is. You’re upset because you want me to be lower than you, but I’m just going to keep going up because I believe in myself.

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Disabled Black girlhood is sacred. What would you tell your younger self that you now realize she may have needed to hear or be told?

KB: I desperately needed to know that I was going to be okay. When you’re young, everything feels like a big deal, and you feel like the world is ending if some person doesn’t talk to you, if you did something embarrassing in front of the teacher, or if somebody said something mean to you. But I wish I would have told myself, girl, you’re going to do things that aren’t even in your wildest dreams. The rest of this stuff might be hard, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be super thin, white, and have long hair to matter. You’re going to change minds in so many ways by just being yourself.

I wish I would’ve told my younger self that she should relax a little bit. Not everything is as intense as I used to make it. I spent so long trying to figure out how to have a better body or [how to] distract from my disability, and I had no idea that [my disability] would help me get where I am today. I would definitely tell her she’s gonna be fine and that all of the things she’s thinking about are going to matter. [But] you’re going to love yourself would be the most important thing. The love you’re seeking comes from within.

Keah Brown, a Black woman with glasses, smiles at the camera

Keah Brown (Photo credit: Courtesy of the author)

VT: [I would tell my younger self] the right people are going to see you for you. I’ve had more difficulty [forming] good friendships in adulthood than I did in high school. High school wasn’t bad. I was a nerd. I studied a lot, which worked in my favor because people wanted help on their homework and papers, so I was the smart cripple. But my disability started to matter in college in certain settings, especially in Black spaces. I’d never encountered that before. I still don’t really talk about it publicly because it’s complicated, but it taught me that there are ignorant people out there. It was my first time really dealing with those types of attitudes. I didn’t know how to react, so I was very reactionary. I was very angry about the way I was being treated.

It’s wild to see some of those very people support my disability activism, which was the thing [they] tried to make me feel bad or self-conscious about. I’ve realized that my voice does matter, and it’s okay to be reactionary sometimes. I wanted to be like my peers, but I now like the fact that I’m different. I’ve learned to focus on myself and on what makes me feel good. If it’s quirky, then it’s quirky. If it excites me and nobody else, that’s fine. But I’m not worried about fitting in because I wasn’t meant to fit in. Those hard experiences taught me to stand in—or wheel in—my truth.

KB: Do the things that make you happy and fulfill you, and stop worrying about whether you’re going to look foolish or silly [to other people]. Who cares what they think? You have to put yourself first. Be selfish.

In a world that demands we compartmentalize ourselves and choose which parts of our identities are the most important, what does it mean to resist that and demand to be seen in our fullness?

VT: I want to be seen in my wholeness. Every identity I have has shaped my experiences, my worldview, and my understanding. To ask me to compartmentalize them is unfair because if one of [those identities] didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I would be a completely different person and have a completely different life. Boxing people in [means] we don’t get to see that person’s essence. We don’t get to see their full experience, and it doesn’t allow us to respect their experience. So many of us were so afraid of being different or rocking the boat because we wanted to fit in, but we don’t have to. There are billions of people on this planet. Nobody should try to [live up to] standards or expectations that are unrealistic and that 99 percent of people [could never live up to]. In order to respect who I am, you have to respect what I bring forward, which is Black disabled womanhood. I have a full story to tell.

In disability spaces, they want you to center the disability part, and in Black spaces, they want to center the Black part. But if you’re going to say that neither community is a monolith, then why are you trying to make it that by just focusing on either the really oppressive part of the identity or shying away from the part you may not understand? You can’t have it both ways. If you’re uncomfortable with diversity of experience when it comes to Blackness, womanhood, or disability, then that’s something for you to handle.

KB: I agree. I’m often told in the disability community, “Don’t talk about queerness. Don’t talk about Blackness. Don’t talk about womanhood. You’re just disabled.” And it’s like, no, that would be disingenuous. It would be a lie to say my experience as a Black disabled queer woman is the same experience as that of a white woman or white man who’s disabled. In order for true change to occur, we have to acknowledge the reality of those different experiences. I’m not ever going to stop being Black or a woman or queer or disabled.

I find myself most frustrated with our Black community not being willing to talk about disability. When my book came out in 2019, only two Black publications wanted to [review] it or talk to me about it. Most of the attention I got was from white publications. And the wild thing is that disabled Black people [always] show up for Black movements, but we don’t get that same treatment. Instead we’re treated like jokes. I understand that we sometimes use jokes to deal with the way the world treats Black people; I get that, but I find myself [feeling] frustrated when the conversation about disability comes up and everything’s a joke about a wheelchair or a cane or somebody posts a GIF from Life. So me reclaiming all these identities and saying, “You don’t get to put me in a box,” is me saying, “Either you take it all, or you leave it because either way I’m going to get done what I need to get done.” I’m Black, I’m disabled, and I’m queer; that’s what you’re going to get.

Vilissa Thompson, a Black woman in a wheelchair, poses in profile

Vilissa Thompson (Photo credit: Courtesy of Vilissa Thompson)

VT: Exactly. I get more frustrated when it happens in the Black community because I don’t expect white people, regardless of disability, to be able to look beyond themselves. I don’t expect non-Black people of color to care about Black people because we know anti-Blackness is rampant in every community. It’s global. Somebody said that anti-Blackness is the currency of white supremacy—everybody has to subscribe to it because somebody has to be on the bottom, and [no one] wants it to be them. But I do expect Black people to get it because we know what it’s like to be oppressed. We know what it looks like to be stripped of our actual personhood. And, as disabled people, we know [what it’s like] to not be counted as full people, to be second-class citizens. Black people have been counted as property, so we know what it means to have [our] very existence reduced to nothing.

[It’s disappointing] to see Black folks not make the connection that disability is a part of our human experience. Black disabled people have been here, and you have known a disabled person, whether they say the word disabled or not. We all know disabled people in our families, our communities, and our churches. That type of cognitive dissonance and resistance to acknowledging disability frustrates me in a deep way.

In the work we do, some of our harshest and most harmful critics are other disabled Black activists. What does it mean to find and sustain safety in a space where we need each other but can also feel alienated?

KB: This is a wonderful question. Before I ever liked myself, I learned to love you, Alice Wong, and Rebecca Cokley, so I find safety in having a small community, keeping my circles small, and knowing that the people who care about me will get it. At first, I didn’t understand why the Black community doesn’t talk much about disability and why the disability community refuses to talk about Blackness, queerness, and homophobia. But building communities within the larger community [helped me] see my own worth. I felt like I could fight a little harder knowing that [even] if I have nothing else, I have the three of you who care and understand.

VT: I’ve known Heather Watkins for several years now. Heather was one of the first people I met in this space. Getting to know you and Alice Wong has been so important, but having a group of nonactivist friends has been helpful too. A lot of my friends who aren’t in this space are also disabled. I know the work I do matters to them. There are people who knew me in college, in grad school, and have seen me at different stages of my life, so their respect for me really matters. I’ve seen what happens to people who don’t have folks who can keep them grounded and make sure they’re not out here embarrassing themselves and possibly fumbling opportunities. I don’t have to be the “activist friend”; I can just be Vilissa. Honestly, disability activism isn’t a safe space for me. If I could do it all over again, there would be a whole lot of people I wouldn’t have friended.

KB: I have friends from college and even some from high school who have seen me trip over rolls of toilet paper and do really embarrassing things, and they don’t care. It’s really nice to have those friends and family who keep me grounded and are like, “Calm down. You’re not Oprah [Winfrey].”

What is something outside of disability work that you’re dying to do but haven’t yet?

VT: I’ve loosely talked about voice acting and maybe regular acting at some point. I have this idea for a web series that I would either star in or have somebody that has a similar disability [star in]. Voice acting will allow me to do something that’s creative and very different from anything I’m doing now. I like doing things that push the envelope. I wouldn’t mind doing some modeling. It’s something different that would allow me to express myself [creatively] and use my talents in ways that create representation. So many things we do create representation.

KB: I’ve been taking acting classes since the start of the pandemic because they’ve been available via Zoom. That’s the thing I’ve always wanted, but I never thought it was possible. I want to write more books. Fiction is my first love, so I’m working on that. There are a lot of things I want to dive into, but I think the biggest among them is acting and making sure I give it my all. I’m cowriting a musical. I’m just trying to dive into everything I possibly can.

VT: It’s about seeing if you can do it and get better with time. We both write. We both can remember the first praise [we received for] something we wrote and that giving us the motivation to keep writing. Sometimes it’s just nice to have things that are just for you and aren’t about the community or the bigger picture. Modeling, voice acting, and acting are for me. If it’s successful in other ways, great, but this is for me. Being good isn’t really the point.

A lot of the work we do comes with the inherent assumption that we must teach what we know, but what do you wish people already knew?

KB: The American with Disabilities Act is 30 years old, but it’s still not being enforced the way it needs to be. Disabled people are people, and we deserve the chance to enter the spaces that everybody else gets to enter and have the opportunities that everybody else gets to have. It’s not about feeling like you did a good deed by helping out one disabled person; you should want to help us because you’re missing out on a whole group of people who have amazing things to offer. When you don’t have accessible spaces, you’re missing out on those people.

VT: I do a lot of one-on-one trainings, and I [enjoy them] because I love seeing light bulbs go off. I enjoy seeing people disclose that they’re disabled, and sometimes you can tell that that’s the first time they’ve spoken it aloud. To be a witness to that is so powerful. When I first got into the Black nerd, a.k.a. Blerd, community five years ago, every once in a while someone might [have said] something about their mental health, anxiety, or chronic illness, but now everybody’s talking about it. I love that. I wish people would learn you don’t have to be estranged from your disability identity due to stigma, shame, or other people being uncomfortable. You should embrace it. When I [lead] certain trainings or I’m in certain settings, people, especially Black women femmes, start to disclose things. It shows me that being yourself matters in ways that you will never comprehend.

Disabled Black girlhood is sacred.

What great TV shows, movies, and artists are you watching and listening to right now?

VT: The Game Show Network is the one channel I have on all evening. It’s really funny. I love Steve Harvey on Family Feud; his foolishness brings me so much joy. The music from my adolescence and young adult years really makes me happy. That music takes me back to high school, to college, to just being free. After DMX died, I would listen to “Party Up.” It was lit when that song came on during my middle-school prom. Should any of us have been listening to “Party Up” at 13? Of course not. I shouldn’t have been listening to a lot of music that was marketed to me. Do you ever listen to old Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera songs? I had no business singing those [songs] at 15, but now, at 35, [when I listen to them] I still feel the same joy I did as a teenager. Music is a time capsule. I love Megan Thee Stallion. I love Cardi B. But old school Destiny’s Child, old school Beyoncé—particularly after she [released] her first couple solo albums—really defined a confusing time in my life. Being a teenager and young adult is hard. I would never want to go back, but that music still transports me to a simpler time.

KB: I’m the same way with music. Taylor Swift’s re-recorded Fearless album has  been in heavy rotation over here. [I’m listening to] a lot of Megan Thee Stallion and some Cardi B—“Up” is so catchy. I’ve started rewatching The Nanny. I’ve been watching a lot of stuff on Netflix. A lot of streaming networks have really good stuff right now, but I’m also going back to old stuff and finding joy in that. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately too. Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s Undistracted podcast is so good. I’m listening to Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s podcast, Hear to Slay, on Luminary.

VT: I’m glad you mentioned the podcasts because if I’m not listening to old-school music or watching Family Feud, I’m listening to true crime podcasts like My Favorite Murder, Wine & Crime, Crime Junkie, and Moms and Murder.  True crime intrigues me because I have a background in social work and psychology. True crime kind of gives me the ability to learn [about] people’s twisted nature and just how twisted people can get.

How do you foster joy and hope just for yourself and not for the consumption of others?

KB: I do the things I enjoy doing and listen to the music I want to listen to. I’ve really been on an Aly & AJ kick, who I used to love when I was in middle school. They have new music out. Hayley Williams from Paramore has two albums out that slap so hard. I’m also unapologetic about making sure I take time for myself. I used to constantly work on the weekends, but now I’m at a place where taking days off brings me joy. Taking time away from social media, or even being on social media and not having to post about anything, fosters joy. Whether it’s watching four or five episodes of The Nanny in a row or eating pizza, I’m pouring back into myself.

VT: I reduce static. I don’t feel like I always have to be in the mix. I care more about what I want to do versus what everybody else is doing or what people may expect me to do. Hypervisibility and hyperconsumption are draining. You’re expected to perform all the time or be like an ambulance chaser for every critical issue that exists. If you’re not mindful, you’ll lose yourself. I foster joy and hope by being intentional about what I want to do. I’ve been doing that [more] during the pandemic. I’ve taken an astrology class. I’m doing a virtual writing retreat right now. I [recently] took my first wine course. I’m doing whatever the hell I want to do and being unapologetic about it. I’m single and childless; I don’t have to answer to anybody. That is freedom.

Being older allows me the freedom of not caring so much. Being more selfish is important to me because I’m a giver. It’s important for me not to lose myself in the chaos of whatever drama’s going on within the community. None of that is going to matter six months from now. That’s the way I think: If it’s not going to matter to me a year from now or five years from now, then to hell with it. Peace is so important because we live in a world of chaos. There’s always some injustice or some inconceivable nonsense happening in this world, so protecting my peace has been important for me. I’ve made myself less available, which has been so freeing.

What have you learned about yourself from doing this work and existing in these spaces?

KB: I’m so much more than I ever thought [I was]. When I first started doing disability activism, I was afraid of being pigeonholed. But now I know I can do my work while knowing I’m more than just a disability advocate. I get to be all things at once.

VT: I’ve learned that no matter what identities people have, they can still be asshats. Don’t let the asshats bother you, distract you, or make you feel like you shouldn’t be in the space. Knowing that has allowed me to take ownership of my work and who I am. I care about the people that matter to me. I care about the work I do. I care about the issues I fight for and talk about, but the people that are distractions don’t mean anything to me. What I’m doing is bigger than what they would ever understand.

People don’t have to understand my purpose as long as I understand it. Being in this space and dealing with some of the things I have dealt with has made me very unapologetic about embracing who I am and speaking my truth. I have a background in psychology and social work. I’m a southern Black woman raised by a grandmother who grew up in rural South Carolina under Jim Crow. I bring all of that into my work. When people within these spaces, particularly disability spaces, try to tear me down or make me feel less than, [I have to remember that in] some ways, they’re afraid of me. People in this space are afraid of Black disabled women who are unapologetic, bold, and passionate. But there’s nothing anyone can say or do to take away my Black disabled joy. The work is bigger than me. I will never allow accolades, connections, or egos to distract me from that reality because I’m leaving behind a legacy. We’ve had to fight to be in the position we’re in.

KB: You’re right. It scares people [to see us being] open, bold, and unapologetic because we’re not following the status quo. We’re [perceived as] a threat. But I don’t need the approval or the applause of people who would stab me in the back as soon as I turn. I don’t worry about whether my work is palatable for people who don’t [understand] my experience. I have people in my life who will either call me out or call me in, but the rest of it doesn’t matter. So many people get upset when one person prospers, but they’re upset because they didn’t do it first. When I first created #DisabledAndCute, some white disabled people [objected]: “Why would you use that word? It’s infantilizing. You’re hurting the disability community.” My little heart was broken at the time, but now I know that hatred stems from jealousy It’s not my fault you feel that way. If you want to start a movement, do it, but don’t harp on somebody else doing something you wish you could have done.

VT: I definitely felt that when I created #DisabilityTooWhite five years ago. That was the first time I’d ever been called the n-word. It showed me the foulness of the [disability] community and its resistance to talking about the truth. When Black women create innovative things, everybody wants to say, “Listen to Black women; support Black women.” But when Black women actually put [themselves] out there, you don’t appreciate it.

KB: Right. After I was on the Today Show, this white lady emailed me and said, “I bought your book, and I just want you to know that I burned it.” She said I talked too much about what it meant for me to be Black and disabled, and she said, “I thought this was going to be a disability rallying cry, but you made it about race.” I didn’t respond to her, but I really wish I would have said, “You bought the book, so thanks for the purchase.” That’s the problem I have with certain white disabled people. They want to be racist in peace. They don’t want to talk about things they can’t personally relate to, so they want to leave out every other identity.

VT: I’m sorry she had the gall to even reach out to you and tell you that. But those are the kinds of responses that Black women receive. When we share our realities, white people and non-Black people of color fail to understand that there are nuggets in our stories that they can relate to as well. When people have that type of response, we know they were never supportive in the first place. Their support was conditional. Black women aren’t safe in online spaces, and [these spaces] don’t care enough to ensure we’re safe. But when Black women are safe on these platforms, then everybody will be safe.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Photo of a young Black woman with her hair parted and hanging down straight.  She is smiling and facing the camera sideways in her wheelchair.  She is outside under the tree branches while wearing a white and black dress.
by Vilissa Thompson
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Vilissa Thompson is a macro-minded social worker from South Carolina. Ramp Your Voice! is her organization where she discusses the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled woman, including intersectionality, racism, politics, and why she unapologetically makes good trouble. Vilissa can be found on Twitter at @VilissaThompson, @RampYourVoice, and on Patreon.

Keah Brown, a brownskinned woman, smizes for the camera
by Keah Brown
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Keah Brown is a journalist and writer whose work can be found in Glamour magazine, Marie Claire UK, Harper’s Bazaar, and Teen Vogue among others. Brown’s debut essay collection The Pretty One, about her experiences as a young African American woman with cerebral palsy is out now. You can learn more about her at keahbrown.com.