Black with Brains: Why Black Excellence is at the Intersection of Genius and Insanity

                                          Worth Living Ambassador Kamaria Fleary


Kamaria Fleary is a psychologist in training. She graduated with a First Class BSc (Hons) degree in Psychology with Professional Development and recently completed her MSc in Psychoanalytic Developmental Psychology from University College London (UCL). She aims to continue her studies and pursue a Doctorate in Counselling Psychology and Psychotherapy. She has appeared on TV ONE’s Women-Today show as a guest panellist and has also featured on BBC Radio’s 100 Women discussion “Does Feminism Include You?” as an invited member of the interactive audience. She presented her research at UCL and The Anna Freud Centre’s Evidenced Based Practice Unit’s 10 year anniversary conference which celebrated progress in child and adolescent mental health. She is also a member of the British Psychological Society.

Graduation: Definition – your ceremony, but essentially your family’s celebration.

I just received my Master’s degree and so graduation season will be shortly upon me and I’m feeling a little nostalgic about my graduation for my Bachelor Degree in psychology three years ago. The event that culminated a combination of 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 names (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 people 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 may 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 eccentricities  but not quite schizophrenia. More interestingly, neuroscience evidence has shown that creative people and  those with schizophrenia do 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 have schizophrenia and not everyone with schizophrenia is 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 of a normally distributed society. I apologise that last sentence was littered with statistical language, 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 Instagram terms – basic b****s 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 with the notion of our identity as a minority, 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. 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 two, it is dictated that we are going to be the lawyer and not the “lazy-ass.” We sometimes live with the anxiety of coming up short, the switching of personalities to navigate between white-washed universities and our ethnic enclave communities. We sometimes doubt ourselves with delusions that our achievements were flukes and not our true fantastic ability. We sometimes live at the intersection between genius and insanity.

We are not mad – we were just made frighteningly phenomenal.

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