Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


After he is released from Ole Nick, the “noo” slave is so exhausted that Solomon feeds him a conjured sweet potato without his ever waking: “De nigger wuz layin' in a co'nder, 'sleep, en Solomon des slip' up ter 'im, en hilt dat sweet'n' 'tater 'fo' de nigger's nose, en he des nach'ly retch' up wid his han', en tuk de 'tater en eat it in his sleep, widout knowin' it.” The “noo”-ly enslaved exhibits symptoms of Dysæsthesia Æthiopis--a pseudoscientific diagnosis coined by Samuel Adolphus Cartwright who wrote of the supposed condition in a 1851 report* (Cartwright was employed by the Medical Association of Louisiana to document slaves’ health conditions). But, as Chesnutt shows, the “noo” one is actually Mars Jeems, a white whose body suffers from exhaustion after slaving on the plantation. Thus, it is the environment, rather than genetic inheritance, that forces the “noo” guy into a state of somnambulism.

Cartwright's report reflects nineteenth- and early twentieth-century efforts to wield science in the enforcement of racial subjugation: Specifically, the pseudoscience peddled in this article is symptomatic of large-scale medical effort to categorize Blacks as different from whites in myriad ways. 
  • "Before going into the peculiarities of their diseases, it is necessary to glance at the anatomical and physiological differences between the negro and the white man; otherwise their diseases cannot be understood. It is commonly taken for granted, that the color of the skin constitutes the main and essential difference between the black and the white race; but there are other differences more deep, durable and indelible, in their anatomy and physiology, than that of mere color. . . . Even the negro's brain and nerves, the chyle and all the humors, are tinctured with a shade of the pervading darkness" (692).
  • "Like children, they require government in every thing; food, clothing, exercise, sleep — all required to be prescribed by rule, or they will run into excesses" (696).
  • "Dysæsthesia Æthiopis is a disease peculiar to negroes, affecting both mind and body. . . . There is both mind and sensibility, but both seem to be difficult to reach by impressions from without. There is partial insensibility of the skin, and so great a hebetude of the intellectual faculties as to be like a person half asleep, that is with difficulty aroused and kept awake. . . . It is much more prevalent among free negroes living in dusters by themselves, than among slaves on our plantations, . . . that have not got some white person to direct and to take care of them. . . .  I propose only to describe its symptoms among slaves. They wander about at night, and keep in a half-nodding sleep during the day. They slight their work,—cut up com, cane, cotton or tobacco when hoeing it, as if for pure mischief. . . . The disease is the natural offspring of negro liberty—the liberty to be idle, to wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks. . . . When left to himself, the negro indulges in his natural disposition to idleness and sloth, and does not take exercise enough to expand his lungs and to vitalize his blood, but dozes out a miserable existence in the midst of filth and uncleanliness, being too indolent and having too little energy of mind to provide for himself proper food and comfortable lodging and clothing. . . . From their natural indolence, unless under the stimulus of compulsion, they doze away their lives" (709-13). 

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