David Harewood hasn't forgotten racist abuse that blighted his youth

Vile insult that changed my life! Mental illness almost destroyed actor David Harewood and left him totally broke — until he became a star in the TV hit Homeland. But he’s never forgotten the racist abuse that blighted his youth

  • David Harewood, from Birmingham, has penned a frank and disturbing memoir 
  • Actor, 55, recounts a childhood full of racist incidents including monkey chants
  • Says he’s lucky to have survived a manic phase during a breakdown in his 20s
  • Had just £80 left in his bank account when he was cast in TV series Homeland

MEMOIR

MAYBE I DON’T BELONG HERE   

by David Harewood (Bluebird £20, 256 pp)

When actor David Harewood was growing up, it was so unusual to see a black person on screen his mother would yell for him and his siblings to come in when one appeared on television.

The children knew they had to be quick about it, as the black character rarely made it to the end of the film, usually dying nobly to save the white hero.

In real life, Harewood — the first black actor to play Othello at the National Theatre, and one of the stars of TV dramas Homeland and The Night Manager — also came perilously close to his own early exit after an acute mental breakdown in his early 20s.

David Harewood, 55 (pictured), from Birmingham, has penned a frank and often disturbing memoir including the racist incidents experienced since his childhood 

How, and why, his life went spinning out of control is the subject of this frank and often disturbing memoir.

Harewood grew up in Birmingham, the son of immigrants from Barbados; his father was a lorry driver.

His was a warm and happy childhood, yet one of young David’s earliest memories, when he was three, was of being hit on the head by a rock ‘as big as a tennis ball’ thrown by a neighbour.

A few weeks later, a brick came flying through the kitchen window, showering glass over the full English breakfast his mother had just prepared for the family.

The Harewoods moved to a more upmarket area, but soon excrement was pushed through their letterbox.

‘Mum and Dad just cleaned up the mess with a bemused shrug and continued on with their day,’ he remembers.

When David was seven and playing outside, a man marched up to him and hissed, ‘Get the **** out of my country, you little black bastard!’

Harewood was baffled. Wasn’t this his country, too? His childhood was peppered with racist incidents; the monkey chants and verbal abuse directed at the black boys in his school football team at away matches, the white father who refused to let his daughter go out with Harewood because ‘I just don’t see it as normal’ (he eventually changed his mind). None of this was discussed with friends or family. ‘We seem to have internalised our struggle for so long . . . the survival strategy is choosing not to speak’, he writes.

David, who was the first black actor to play Othello (pictured) at the National Theatre, began to brood on all the abuse he’d been subjected to from childhood after leaving drama school 

Harewood loved clowning around at school and his English teacher suggested he applied to drama school.

This was his ‘Eureka’ moment: ‘I went home that night knowing for the first time what I wanted to do with my life.’

He got into RADA and had a blissfully happy time there. ‘I had found my tribe . . . I could do anything or be anyone I chose.’

50 

The number of awards picked up by TV series Homeland

Although he worked steadily almost as soon as he left drama school, he began to realise that ‘at RADA I’d just been an actor. Now my colour was the defining factor in reviews and articles’.

When he was cast as Romeo in a stage production, one reviewer sniped that he ‘looked more like Mike Tyson than Romeo’. Harewood was crushed.

His confidence wavering, drinking too much and smoking a lot of cannabis, he began to brood on all the abuse he’d been subjected to from childhood onwards.

His mind kept going back to the man shouting at him to get out of his country.

‘I had a dawning awareness of that little piece of me that had broken off the moment I’d first been racially abused: little black bastard.’

He took to endlessly wandering the streets at night, sometimes suffering memory lapses or convinced that he was invisible.

David was diagnosed as suffering from psychosis, after being sectioned following an acute mental breakdown. Pictured: David in Homeland 

When friends took him to hospital during a manic phase, a psychiatrist gave him sleeping pills and made the flippant diagnosis: ‘He just thinks he’s Lenny Henry.’ Harewood threw the pills in the bin.

One day he woke up and heard Martin Luther King, whom he idolised, talking to him. ‘I sat in my bedroom sobbing . . . my guiding star was speaking to me.’

He headed out into the night believing he was about to change the world. Instead, he ended up being arrested; it took six policemen to restrain him.

‘One false move by me or any of them could have ended my life,’ he says. He believes he is lucky to have survived.

For five days he was sectioned, ‘lost in some kind of mental maze, from which nobody knew if I would ever recover’.

He was eventually diagnosed as suffering from psychosis. Harewood was released into the care of his mother and tried to return to normal, but he became disturbed again and was sent to a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital. He was put on drugs so powerful that just brushing his teeth took him an hour.

After two weeks, his mother was able to take him home again. It was this redoubtable woman, with no input from the doctors, who got him well again.

David had been out of work for six months and had just £80 left in his bank account when he was cast in Homeland (pictured) 

‘She slowly reduced the size of the pill she was giving me until finally she wasn’t giving me any pills at all . . . I have never needed a single tablet again. The madness was gone.’

Harewood dived back into acting but was frustrated by the limited range of roles offered: ‘a lawyer or a policeman or a soldier or a boxer — standard fare.’

He had been out of work for six months and had just £80 left in his bank account when he was cast as the director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism unit in the American TV series Homeland, which became a huge hit. Now 55, Harewood alternates stage work with TV and films.

He gives little away about his private life — he barely mentions his wife and two daughters — but is commendably open about the terror, confusion and strangeness of his breakdown, with its ‘odd moments of lucidity during the medicated madness’.

MAYBE I DON’T BELONG HERE by David Harewood (Bluebird £20, 256 pp)

He concedes there is probably a genetic element to his mental illness; his father suffered a breakdown when David was 15. He also acknowledges there is a correlation between smoking cannabis and psychosis.

But he is in no doubt the main cause of his breakdown was the racism he experienced in his childhood and early adulthood.

Reading the litany of insults and threats he has endured is depressing and shaming. He points out black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people: ‘Clearly, there is something about living in Britain that is tough for black people,’ he writes.

Harewood’s book raises uncomfortable questions about race relations in Britain. He maintains there is much about this country that he loves, but says his black identity and British identity are constantly in conflict.

‘At times in my life I’ve been able to fuse these halves together, but occasionally the gap between them is justtoo big.’

He admits he is envious of the black Olympic athletes who joyfully drape themselves in the Union Jack. ‘I would struggle to embrace the flag like that,’ he says. ‘To me, it is a symbol of a near-constant struggle to keep the two halves of myself from coming apart.’

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