Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


In My Bondage and My Freedom (1855),* Frederick Douglass recalls: “More slaves are whipped for oversleeping than for any other fault. Neither age nor sex finds any favor. The overseer stands at the quarter door, armed with stick and cowskin, ready to whip any who may be a few minutes behind time” (Bondage 80). Likewise, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave explains how fretting over oversleep plagued a slave throughout the night:

Solomon Northup laos wrote in his memoir Twelve Years a Slave (1853)** of the severe whippings that resulted from oversleeping: "With a prayer that he may be on his feet and wide awake at the first sound of the horn, he sinks to his slumbers nightly" (168). He also describes the horrible sleeping conditions he faced while enslaved and the time schedule that the enslaved were forced to follow: 

"[When] the tenant of the slave hut is ready to sit down upon the ground to supper . . . it is usually midnight. The same fear of punishment with which they approach the gin-house, possesses them again on lying down to get a snatch of rest. It is the fear of oversleeping in the morning. Such an offence would certainly be attended with not less than twenty lashes. With a prayer that he may be on his feet and wide awake at the first sound of the horn, he sinks to his slumbers nightly.
The softest couches in the world are not to be found in the log mansion of the slave. The one whereon I reclined year after year, was a plank twelve inches wide and ten feet long. My pillow was a stick of wood. The bedding was a coarse blanket, and not a rag or shred beside. Moss might be used, were it not that it directly breeds a swarm of fleas.
. . .

An hour before day light the horn is blown. Then the slaves arouse, prepare their breakfast, fill a gourd with water, in another deposit their dinner of cold bacon and corn cake, and hurry to the field again. It is an offence invariably followed by a flogging, to be found at the quarters after daybreak. Then the fears and labors of another day begin; and until its close there is no such thing as rest. He fears he will be caught lagging through the day; he fears to approach the gin-house with his basket-load of cotton at night; he fears, when he lies down, that he will oversleep himself in the morning. Such is a true, faithful, unexaggerated picture and description of the slave's daily life, during the time of cotton-picking, on the shores of Bayou Boeuf" (170-1).


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