Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


The narrator's tone in describing Maud and Susie is reminiscent of Mrs. Leland's in "Her Housekeeper" when she assumes that her Black maid Alice need not sleep at all. Even more troubling is the fact that Miss Miller takes the twins from an orphanage, not to raise as her own children, but to employ them in her home as domestic servants with the expectation that they be "united in service 'of the family.'" Susie is described as "the indefatigable sweeper and duster, scrubber and cleaner and beater of pillows, who kept the house in order." The implication that Susie and Maud do "not mind the work" because it is all "they could remember" is beyond disturbing. 

The patronizing tone that Gilman takes on each time she or her narrators expound upon Black lives is symptomatic of her belief that white women, who in her estimation were the most socially advanced subset of American females, could accrue greater social power by capitalizing on labor provided by immigrant and Black working women. In a Forerunner essay ("The 'Nervous Breakdown' of Women," vol. VII, 1916*), Gilman distinguishes African Americans from their white counterparts: "This submerged . . . sex of whom in the past we have required but one virtue and two duties; now stands like Balboa, facing a new ocean. It is not a question of unfitness, of incapacity. She is fit. She is capable. She is even now happier, more alive, more hopeful, because of her larger life. But as an instance of sudden, sweeping, exacting change of conditions, it is the most impressive in history. Some parallel may be seen in the freeing of slaves in our country; a race but a few generations from savagery, first jerked from Africa to America, from comparative idleness to enforced labor, and then catapaulted[sic] into full enfranchisement, with a very rapid increase of insanity as one result, the nervous system failing to accommodate itself in many cases to such sudden change. Those who look down upon the negro and condemn his shortcomings should compare his present rate of progress with our own when we were at the same starting point." 

In 1908, Gilman’s penned the essay “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem,”** which was published in the American Journal of Sociology. The essay exemplifies Gilman’s desire for white social advancement at the expense of Black labor:

"Here is at present an undeveloped country and an undeveloped race. Here is potential labor that will not apply itself, and the need for labor unmet. This plan brings the labor to the place where it is wanted, and benefits the laborer in the process. There should be nothing offensive in the whole undertaking. Compulsory education we demand for all in many states; this would enforce it more thoroughly, that is all. The enlistment would be compulsory, but so is enlistment in the army in highly civilized lands, and that is not held dishonorable. To be drafted to a field of labor that shall benefit his own race and the whole community, need not be considered a wrong to any negro. The whole system should involve fullest understanding of the special characteristics of the negro; should be full of light and color; of rhythm and music; of careful organization and honorable recognition. It should furnish good physical training and as much education as each individual can take" (83).
. . .
"A training-school for domestic service might be part of each stationary base; and individuals could be sent from this on probation as it were— perfectly free to remain out in satisfactory home service, or to improve their condition as they were able. In case of unsatisfactory service they should be reinlisted — and try some other form of labor. A plan of organized labor that would make all negroes self supporting ; a plan of education that would make the whole race rise in social evolution; a plan of local development that would add millions to the value of the southern land, and all within the independent power of each state — surely such a plan is worth considering" (85).


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