Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


For the enslaved and their descendants who remained in the South after the war, finding one’s own space for sleep was a challenge. Vagrancy laws proliferated in the years after the Civil War. Black Southerners who could not afford a home of their own or who shared cramped quarters with other tenants found no respite in sleeping outdoors. Peter in The Colonel’s Dream (1905)* is a prime example in Chesnutt’s fiction of the objectification of both railroad workers and the implementation of vagrancy laws. Upon returning to his hometown in North Carolina, the main character Henry encounters Peter, a formerly enslaved man from his childhood plantation. Peter recounts his life since abolition, telling of his work as a “railroad contractor . . . until overwork had laid him up with a fever” (28). After Henry leaves Peter, the old man is arrested for vagrancy and auctioned off as a convict laborer. In this later work of Chesnutt's, vagrancy laws are exemplify white power structures that exploited public displays of Black exhaustion.   

Frederick Douglass, in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855),** describes his "sleeping place" as "on the floor of a little, rough closet, which opened into the kitchen." Beds, he explains, "were known to none of the field hands; nothing but a coarse blanket-not so good as those used in the north to cover horses-was given them, and this only to the men and women. The children stuck themselves in holes and corners, about the quarters; often in the corner of the huge chimneys, with their feet in the ashes to keep them warm. The want of beds, however, was not considered a very great privation. Time to sleep was of far greater importance, for, when the day's work is done, most of the slaves have their washing, mending and cooking to do; and, having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing such things, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in necessary preparations for the duties of the coming day. The sleeping apartments--if they may be called such--have little regard to comfort or decency. Old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down upon the common clay floor, each covering up with his or her blanket,--the only protection they have from cold or exposure." Beds, he explains, were never much considered by those enslaved because insufficient sleeping hours overruled any concerns about comfort: "The night, however, is shortened at both ends. The slaves work often as long as they can see, and are late in cooking and mending for the coming day; and, at the first gray streak of morning, they are summoned to the field by the driver's horn"  (101-2).


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