Book Review: How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity

Book Review: Jurelle, Bruce La Marr. How to go mad without losing your mind: Madness and black radical creativity. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).

This guest post comes from Jianing Li, an MA student at the Institute of Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester. Jianing recently completed a placement at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre.

“How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity” by La Marr Jurelle Bruce is a thought-provoking and deeply engaging book. It will appeal to anyone with a rich imagination and interested in the intersection of politics and mental health. The author, Bruce, uses his own experience as a Black man with mental illness to trace the history of madness in the Black radical tradition.

The book traces the history of the psychiatric system and its links to racism, showing how Black people are often subjected to harmful and dehumanizing treatments in the name of mental health. Bruce argues that madness has been a central element of Black radical creativity, from the ecstatic visions of early Black radical religious movements to the surrealism of contemporary Black art. The author connects madness to larger issues of social and political injustice. In this book, madness is not only a personal or psychological experience, but also closely related to systemic oppression and violence. By exploring the intersection of madness and racism, he reveals how Black people have been pathologized and marginalized throughout history.

Bruce analyses how Black people have historically been pathologized and stigmatized because of their mental health experiences. He argues that the mental illness system is often used as a tool of oppression, and that mental illness and racism against Black people are deeply intertwined. Bruce also believes that madness can be a powerful tool of resistance and subversion. He cites the work of artists and writers such as Sun Ra, Octavia Butler and Jean-Michel Basquiat. These artists and writers use madness to challenge dominant narratives and create new forms of expression, illustrating that madness can be a radical form of imagination that allows for new ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Bruce provides a detailed analysis of the work of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose art he argues can be seen as a form of madness that challenges dominant cultural narratives. Basquiat’s work often featured fragmented and chaotic images that reflected his own experiences with mental illness and his critique of the mainstream art world. Bruce uses this to illustrate that madness can be a vehicle for disruption and transformation.

Bruce draws on the work of philosopher Michel Foucault to explore the history of the psychiatric system and its connection to racism. Foucault argued that institutions like hospitals and prisons were not neutral places of care and control but were shaped by larger social and political forces. Bruce uses this framework to demonstrate that psychiatry has historically been used to pathologize and marginalize Black people. He also suggests ways that we may begin to reimagine mental health care in ways that are more just and equitable.

“Madness can be a form of radical imagination that allows us to see beyond the narrow constraints of dominant culture and to imagine new possibilities for the future” (p. 27). I think this quote is at the heart of the book; that madness can be a powerful source of creativity and resistance. Bruce argues that by embracing our own experiences of madness, we can challenge dominant cultural narratives and imagine new ways of being in the world. In my opinion, embracing my own experience of madness is also a process of recognizing myself, understanding myself, and embracing myself. When you have a clear understanding of yourself, you can better understand your own thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behaviours. Human potential is unlimited. You can clearly understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and find your own positioning and value, in order to meet the challenges and opportunities in life more confidently.

Ramp leading up to RACE Centre library Bookshelves and computer desks visible
The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre

In addition, the author makes a novel point by placing mental illness in a larger social and historical context, not as a failure or weakness. “Madness is not a deviation from the norm, but is instead a response to the profound injustices and traumas of our society” (p. 2). By understanding madness as a response to social and political trauma, we can begin to address mental health issues and work towards more systemic change. We can see those that have mental health issues not as victims or patients, but as complex and creative in their experiences and responses. Understanding and giving voice to madness can help challenge the norms that govern culture and promote a fairer society. Overall, this book offers a fresh perspective on “madness” and mental health. The language is vivid, the thoughts are profound, and some words are worth pondering carefully. I believe everyone can find inspiration in it.