Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


In 1907, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois collaborated on the publication of The Negro in the South; His Economic Progress in Relation to His Moral and Religious Development; Being the William Levi Bull Lectures for the Year.* The first half of the book was penned by Washington with Du Bois completing the latter. 

In his portion of the book, Washington correlates a stereotypical portrait of the lazy African "under the banana-tree" with U.S. notions of black industry:

 “In his native country, owing to climatic conditions, and also because of his few simple and crude wants, the Negro, before coming to America, had little necessity to labor. You have, perhaps, read the story, that it is said might be true in certain portions of Africa, of how the native simply lies down on his back under a banana-tree and falls asleep with his mouth open. The banana falls into his mouth while he is asleep and when he wakes up he finds that all he has to do is to chew it—he has his meal already served. Notwithstanding the fact that, in most cases, the element of compulsion entered into the labor of the slave, and the main object sought was the enrichment of the owner, the American Negro had, under the regime of slavery, his first lesson in anything like continuous, progressive, systematic labor. I have said that two of the signs of Christianity are clothes and houses, and now I add a third, “work." In the early days of slavery the labor performed by the slave was naturally of a crude and primitive kind. With the growth of civilization came a demand for a higher kind of labor, hence the Negro slave was soon demanded as a skilled laborer, as well as for ordinary farm and common labor. It soon became evident that from an economic point of view it paid to give the Negro just as high a degree of skill as possible—the more skill, the more dollars. When an ordinary slave sold for, say seven hundred dollars, a skilled mechanic would easily bring on the auction block from fourteen hundred to two thousand dollars. It is strangely true that when a black man would bring two thousand dollars a white man would not bring fifty cents. As the slave grew in the direction of skilled labor, he was given an increased amount of freedom. This was practiced by some owners to such an extent that the skilled mechanic was permitted to "hire" his own time, working where and for whom he pleased, and for what wage, on condition that he pay his owner so much per month or year, as agreed upon. Not a few masters found that this policy paid better than the one of close personal supervision; many female slaves were trained not only in ordinary house duties, but on every large plantation there was at least one high class seamstress” (20-2). 

Later in the text, Du Bois, unlike Washington, does not iterate stereotypes of blackness. Instead, he focuses singularly (and more effectively) on the environmental conditions that have contributed to stereotypes of black laziness: 

"A race is not made in a single generation. If they accuse Negro women of lewdness and Negro men of monstrous crime, what are they doing but advertising to the world the shameless lewdness of those Southern men who brought millions of mulattoes into the world, and whose deeds throughout the South and particularly in Virginia, the mother of slavery, have left but few prominent families whose blood does not to-day course in black veins? Suppose to-day Negroes do steal; who was it that for centuries made stealing a virtue by stealing their labor? Have not laziness and listlessness always been the followers of slavery? If these ten millions are ignorant by whose past law and mandate and present practice is this true?" (181-2).


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