Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


Annie's conclusion about Sis' Becky's story--that it "might have happened half a hundred times, and no doubt did happen, in those horrid days before the war."--is reflective of the myriad stories in which the enslaved suffered from sleep deprivation, family separation, and countless other forms of physical and emotional abuse.

Although Chesnutt lacked the medical knowledge we now have for interpreting symptoms of vivid and lucid dreaming, he was keenly aware of connections between Southern environmental factors and the extreme sleep phenomena experienced by slaves.

Sleep deprivation for enslaved women was exacerbated by sexual predation committed by enslavers. In Incidents in the Life a Slave Girl (1861),* Harriett Jacobs recalls being sexually harassed by her master, “whose restless, craving, vicious nature roved about day and night” (29). Beyond dangers of sexual predation, women slaves were forced to labor throughout the day, then expected to provide childcare throughout the night. Jacob’s describes an aunt who was forced to sleep on the floor in the entryway of her mistress’s bedroom and, consequently, suffered six premature births: “Finally, toiling all day, and being deprived of rest at night, completely broke down her constitution, and Dr. Flint declared it was impossible she could ever become the mother of a living child” (217-8).

In Sarah Hopkins Bradford’s biography of Harriet Tubman (1886),** she paints a similar picture: “When the labors, unremitted for a moment, of the long day were over . . . there was a cross baby to be rocked continuously, lest it should wake and disturb the mother's rest. The black child sat beside the cradle of the white child, so near the bed, that the lash of the whip would reach her if she ventured for a moment to forget her fatigues and sufferings in sleep” (19-20). Not only were slave women forced to spend their nights with their infant charges, they were expected to stay awake throughout the night in anticipation of every cry.


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