Blackness, Belonging, and Mental Health: A Book Review

Disclaimer: This review may contain spoilers for ‘Maybe I Don’t Belong Here: A Memoir of Race, Identity, Breakdown and Recovery’ by David Harewood (Bluebird Books).

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MAYBE I DON’T BELONG HERE, the black-and-yellow poster on the wall of the subway in London shouted to me, on a visit last September. As a South African of mixed heritage, it was a sentiment that I could empathise with, never quite fitting in, often feeling like the imposter.

This memoir, Maybe I Don’t Belong Here: A Memoir of Race, Identity, Breakdown and Recovery by David Harewood, British actor and presenter, and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) graduate, is not a fluffy celebrity exposé, as he points out in his Letter to a Reader at the beginning of the book. He sets out to honestly examine the significance of a mental health breakdown he suffered as a young adult, speaking out about two taboo subjects — racism in Britain, and Black people and mental health.

Harewood, born in Birmingham to parents from Barbados, experienced racism from an early age and the book details his struggle to assimilate the Black and English halves of his identity. He talks about the in-between space he occupies between Barbados and England, white and Black — naively believing that he could be anything that he wanted to be while learning that racism was part of the fabric of his life in the United Kingdom.

During his training as an actor, his accent becomes neutralised and he is accused of being a coconut for using good diction, becoming other in a Black space as well as a white space. This feeling of otherness leads to constant inner conflict. He describes going to watch a football match in Leeds, ignoring his “Black self” that warns him of possible racism because his “white self” believes that he belongs. It is as if the two sides of him are at war with each other. There is a constant measuring of himself to see if he is good enough.

He also shares happy childhood memories, his family huddled around the television at night, nurturing his love for acting and the theatre. However, this seemingly normal activity means subconsciously assimilating whiteness through television which at the time was a white space. He relates how the appearance of a Black person on television is so unusual that they tumble over each other into the living room to witness the anomaly. I could relate to his description of the living room filled with his mother’s prized ornaments, reserved for guests, and to the pressure to always look your best. I was amused by the anecdote of the neighbour who would whip out her comb to tame the hair of random children in the neighbourhood to make sure that they were respectable.

David Olusoga, British historian and filmmaker, shares similar experiences of racism while growing up in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, in the foreword. Olusoga, himself the son of British and Nigerian parents, refers to WEB du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness” that describes the space that black people are forced to inhabit while living in a racialised society. Du Bois describes this sensation as having your identity split into different parts and constantly having to view yourself through the eyes of different people, creating internal conflict and leading to an impaired self-image.

Harewood starts to understand that his experiences of racism are internalised and that one survives by not talking about it, denying that it exists. He reaches the point where he realises that he had assimilated to such an extent that he believed his colour didn’t matter. However, he is reminded of the reality in no uncertain terms, for example, when he is challenged by the press about his blackness in a Shakespearean play, comparing his presence in the play to be as threatening as that of American boxer, Mike Tyson.

I was interested to read about his experiences both in the UK and in the USA. He observes that the conversations about race are more advanced in the USA, where he meets Black people who are confident, where his “colour was less of a novelty” and he could disappear into a crowd. In the UK, he finds there is a blanket denial of racism and mentions the Sewell Report, commissioned by No 10 Downing Street and published in 2021, that denied the existence of any institutional racism.

At 23 years of age, Harewood had a psychotic breakdown and was sectioned. Thirty years later, he has the opportunity to examine what happened while shooting the documentary Psychosis and Me for BBC2. He revisits places and talks to people in order to understand his own mental illness while also interviewing others who had similar experiences. The film was released in 2019 and watched by 1.2 million viewers and was nominated for a British Academy Television Award for Best Single Documentary.

As Harewood explains in his book, psychosis is now seen as developing from a combination of biological, psychological and socio-environmental factors. Studies have shown that racism can contribute to the development of psychosis. In a vulnerable person, this can be exacerbated by the use of drugs and alcohol and stress and trauma. When he left his close-knit community in Birmingham, in his late teens to live in London and study at RADA, his vulnerability led to his abuse of drugs and alcohol to cope with loneliness and the stress of auditions.

This deeply personal book (published after the release of the film) is an honest exploration of his experiences of lifelong racism and subsequent loss of identity and eventual breakdown. At the same time, he sheds light on a taboo subject and challenges the stigma of mental illness as well as the unequal treatment of Black people experiencing psychosis. During the process, he poignantly reconciles his younger self with the successful actor, writer and director he has become.

Nadia Kamies

I was born and raised in Cape Town during apartheid. My writing focuses on the aftermath of slavery and apartheid.

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