Black with brains: Why Black excellence lives at the intersection of genius and insanity

Graduation: Definition - your ceremony, but essentially your family's celebration.

Graduation season is upon us and I'm feeling a little nostalgic about my own graduation 3 years ago. The event that culminated my intelligence, my family's expectations and my ancestor's missed opportunities (no, really - just let me explain). Whether you are in academia or not, you will be unable to avoid the prolific stream of prom dresses, creative captioned caps upon the heads of the future HR managers (sorry, I meant generation) or just proud parents posting exam scripts, certificates and scholarship letters adorned with their name (sorry, I meant surname) that happens to also be shared by their child. You see the latter, is another one of my sarcastic jokes but also evidence of the fact that for many ladies of colour, that last name is loaded with a list of high expectations. Think I'm lying? Did you not watch Disney Channel document the experiences of Black Excellence through Tahj Mowry's portrayal of the Smart Guy?


We are not just expected to do our best, we are told to BE the best. "Harriet Tubman is counting on you." "Rosa Parks didn't sit down on the bus for you just to become the 283 bus route driver", "Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban fighting for education - don't you dare take yours for granted" and by the way "Black girls don't kick rocks...Black girls rock!" It's no surprise that by age 15 some of us (Saheela Ibraheem - you go girl) have already been accepted to Harvard. However, excellence, exceptionality and incredibility can often be accompanied by insanity.


If you scroll instagram enough (you should be - like hello, it's the 21st century), you will be familiar with the quote by Oscar Levant that reads "there is a fine line between genius and insanity." In essence, being the greatest thinker means losing your mind in the process. Much research within neuroscience, psychiatry and psychoanalysis has attempted to make links between creativity and mental health to explain just why Einstein, Van Gogh and Michael Jackson were just that little bit eccentric but not schizophrenic. More interestingly, neuroscience evidence has shown that creative people and schizophrenics show the same amount of high focus, rapid information processing or psychomotor activation in the right side of the brain. Yet, not all creative people are schizophrenics and not all schizophrenics are creative.


Sigmund Freud proposed the psychoanalytic view that creativity is the alternative to neurosis and that creativity served as a defence that protects us against pathology, allowing us to sublimate (convert) potentially pathological behaviours into a socially acceptable form of expression. However, it seems that when we think outside the box, we are seen as outliers on a spectrum ofa normally distributed society. I apologise that last sentence was littered with statistical language and because I don't want no rumours running riot about me being a psychobitch, let me just rephrase that - freethinkers are either seen as smart or psychotic because they rebel against societies rules and regulations on race, gender or class. In essence, you basic bitches just aren't rebellious or creative enough.


However, some evidence suggests that achieving a grade A may be associated with a risk for bipolar disorder and there are extensive correlations between academic achievement, anxiety and depression. Well, I mean, come on, sleepless nights, cold pizza for breakfast and writing a Red-Bull (please mail me a cheque for this free promotion) fuelled thesis on some far-fetched topic is likely to send anyone a little crazy.

Yet, identifying with one's ethnic group is also associated with great academic success. Yes, for many of us, our success is coloured with suffering; often suffering at the hands of being a minority navigating a world lead by white patriarchy, so just how do we still manage to succeed?


As Sigmund Freud said, we are converting much of our life stressors that could lead to destruction into social acceptable creative forms. When society tells us we are insignificant, we show them we are infamous. When they tell us we are ugly, we show them we are unmatchable, or as Beyonce put it - when life gave us lemons, we made lemonade. Sometimes it is not necessarily our own experiences of suffering, or our family's or our community's suffering, sometimes it is just the knowledge of Rosa Park's famous bus protest that means that we live a notion that we can't let the ancestors down now. Yeah, I wasn't allowed to be the cool kid that sat at the back of the 283 bus after school because I had a sense of Rosa looking down on me with pity. Because we are products of collectivist and interdependent societies - (didn't you know "it takes a village to raise a child?") when you win, we all celebrate, but why is it that when you suffer (most often psychologically), you will do so singularly?


I believe it is because if we are not successful we are shamed and these binaries are toxic to the self esteem and sense of self of many Black and minority ethnic students. We are either excellent or incompetent. The prototype of success or the stereotype of failure. By age 2 it is dictated that we are going to be the lawyer and not the "lazy-ass". We live with the anxiety of coming up short, the switching of personalities to navigate between white-washed universities and our ethnic enclave communities. We doubt ourselves with delusions that our achievements were flukes and not our true fantastic ability. We live at the intersection between genius and insanity. But we are not mad - we were just made frighteningly phenomenal.

This article was also featured on a blog that shares people's experiences of mental health



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