Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


Julius is unclear in “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare” as to whether the “mo’nin’ en groanin’” in the slave quarters are expressed by slaves asleep or awake—that is, suffering from sleep’s night terrors or lying wide-eyed in anticipation of the overseer’s whip at dawn. What Chesnutt makes explicit, however, are the pervading modes of oppression that were endured by Antebellum slaves—forces that dictated their every waking, and sleeping, moment.

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845),* the formerly enslaved author describes being “awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine” (6), who was discovered outside her sleeping quarters at night and mercilessly whipped by the overseer: 

"I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it" (6).


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