Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


Chesnutt’s emphasis on interrupted sleep in a post-war South represents his efforts to disavow white Northerner’s of a romanticized South that is all nostalgia, escape, and leisure—a place where you can sleep and be lazy while others do the work for you. As the end of "A Deep Sleeper" reveals, in a post-slavery South whites cannot simply indulge in leisure and assume that exploited black labor will be available to service them.

As “A Deep Sleeper” exemplifies, black characters in Chesnutt’s stories often suffer from want of sleep in a state completely antithetical to that of the privileged and rested John and Annie. In turn, black characters find strategies for using sleep-deprivation symptoms to their advantage. In this way, they learn to play on the racial stereotype of what eventually became known as “Colored People’s Time.” Etymologist Barry Popik traces the emergence of the derogatory acronym CPT to 1912 and historian Mark Smith, in Mastered by the Clock, locates CPT’s non-pejorative antecedents in the nineteenth-century South: “CPT is a useful shorthand to describe how African Americans as a class of laborers resisted planter-defined time during and after slavery. CPT was an intuitive intellectual and social construct serving to repudiate the demands of time-conscious southern agrarian capitalists, old and new” (130). According to Smith, white Southerners assumed that slaves were inept at comprehending clock time, but it “may well have been a clever ploy [by slaves] . . . to manipulate white time definitions and racial stereotypes by feigning ignorance and causing, for want of a better phrase, temporal inconveniences” (143).

The parallel of pre- and post-war subversions of master time is best illustrated in “A Deep Sleeper.” The story opens with a clarification of John’s measurement of time: “It was four o'clock on Sunday afternoon, in the month of July.” For John, it is a lazy Sunday amidst “Sabbath stillness.” For Julius, however, it is a day of spiritual reflection. John intrudes upon Julius’s Sabbath, expecting him to subscribe to his own “master” schedule. Julius’s response is to likewise sabotage John’s Sunday plans by forcing his own measurement of time upon his employer.

This page has tags:

This page is referenced by: