Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


In “A Deep Sleeper,” Chesnutt plays on medical discourse to reveal the distrust that enslaved people held again medical assumptions about the Black body. Furthermore, Julius’s wordplay suggests the ways in which those enslaved took advantage of the pseudoscientific knowledge passed among enslavers. In this story, Skundus’s pretend narcolepsy enables him to marry his sweetheart Cindy. His trickery is so masterful that it is the white doctors themselves who prescribe marriage. The hired physicians diagnose Skundus with “a catacornered fit,” and instruct Dugal to permit Skundus and Cindy a wedding and cohabitation. 

In contrast the subversion that Chesnutt's fiction idealistically conveys, some firsthand accounts of slavery reveal the internalization of such stereotypes. A formerly enslaved writer, Philip Alexander Bruce, stands in juxtaposition to fictional figures such as Skundus. Rather than subvert stereotypes, he endorse them, writing in his 1889 autobiography The Plantation Negro as a Freeman (1889)*: “As laborers, the members of the new generation . . . have a marked disposition to doze and sleep, and during the time of their drowsiness or slumber the fires in the barn either decline or grow into too fierce a flame. In fact, it may be said of all the laborers with much more truth than of the house servants, that they cannot be relied upon to perform any task, which would be either dangerous or fatal to themselves or to the interests of their employer, if they showed that they were lacking in vigilance, prudence, or self-possession” (184). This testimony gives a disturbing reality to the attitude of Uncle Remus in Joel Chandler Harris’s plantation tales. In “A Story of the War” (1880), Uncle Remus complains of the new generation who are “too lazy ter wuk . . . en dey specks hones’ fokes fer ter stan’ up en s’port um” (178).


This page has tags:

This page is referenced by: