Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


In the outer tale of “The Conjurer’s Revenge,” Chesnutt makes connections between railroad expansion and objectified black workers. These correlations suggest that Chesnutt sought to acknowledge the typical forms of labor for post-war Southern black men: railroad labor or tenant farming. One represented mobility, the other stasis, but neither greatly exceeded the exploitative conditions black Southerners endured during slavery. Black railroad porters, for example, were forced to suffer extreme sleep-deprivation. In the historical study Dangerously Sleepy, Alan Derickson's recounts that “From its founding in 1867, [George] Pullman hired only African American porters for its sleeping cars. . . . Maid jobs were reserved exclusively for black women” (87). Over the next forty years, Pullman continued to employ African Americans with little to no labor law restrictions. Citing the Hours of Service Act of 1907, Derickson notes that the legislation did not protect railroad porters “because neither Congress nor the Interstate Commerce Commission considered their work essential to the safety of the traveling public” (89). Derickson refers to a Pullman conductor’s account in 1901 who “estimated that [porters] got four or fewer hours sleep per night” (90) and who admired his hired porter for his “the ability to keep wide awake when he is a living corpse from want of sleep” (90). Not only were porters expected to function on little to no sleep, they were also deprived of private sleeping quarters: Porters were expected to “sleep in public places, mainly in the men’s lounges and restrooms of the sleeping cars” (85). On trains composed of numerous sleeper cars, black service workers were relegated to taking their brief snatches of rest in bustling shared spaces. This lack of personal restoration—in time and space—was a major issue for African Americans in the Jim Crow era.

In Character Building (1902),* Booker T. Washington suggests that access to rail work (like working as Pullman porters) opened up possibilities for black advancement:
"Then, again, some of you are expected to take care of the roads. I should have liked to have seen boys this morning so much interested in working on the roads that they would have put sawdust from this building to the gate. I should have liked to see them put down some boards, and arrange for the water to drain off. We want such fellows as those here. The ones we want are the ones who are going to think of such things as these without being told. That is the only kind of people worth having. Those who have to wait to have somebody else put ideas into their minds are not worth much of anything. And, to be plain with you, we cannot have such people here. We want you to be thinkers, to be leaders. Yesterday, and the night before, I traveled on the Mobile and Ohio railroad from St. Louis to Montgomery, and there was a young man on the same train who was not more than twenty years old, I believe, who recently had been appointed a special freight agent of the road. All his conversation was about freight. He talked freight to me and to everybody else. He would ask this man and that man if they had any freight, and if so he would tell them that they must have it shipped over the Mobile and Ohio railroad. Now that man will be general freight agent of that road some day: he may be president of the road. But suppose he had sat down and gone to sleep, and had waited for some one to come to him to inquire the best way to ship freight. Do you suppose he would ever have secured any freight to ship?" (14-5).
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903),** W.E.B. Du Bois counters this simplified and stereotypical polarization of a black man who simply sits down and goes to sleep (as opposed to work) and one who eagerly seeks out opportunities for labor regardless of racial adversity and exploitation:
"Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to make his programme unique. This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington's programme naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life. Moreover, this is an age when the more advanced races are coming in closer contact with the less developed races, and the race-feeling is therefore intensified; and Mr. Washington's programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races. Again, in our own land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to race-prejudice against Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens. In other periods of intensified prejudice all the Negro's tendency to self-assertion has been called forth; at this period a policy of submission is advocated. . . . Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,--First, political power, Second, insistence on civil rights, Third, higher education of Negro youth,— and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South" (50-1).


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