Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


The curse of the Marked Tree results in everyone in the Spencer house being burned alive after the home catches fire while all are "soun' asleep." This scene may be inspired, in part, by tendencies from white authors to thematize the threat of black invasion, particularly under the guise of night and by preying on the vulnerabilities of the white sleeping body.  

Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots (1902)*—the novel that inspired D.W. Griffin’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation—is rife with white characters who cannot sleep for fear of black invasion and retribution. At one point, white South Carolinians gather to pray “for deliverance from the ruin that threatened the state under the dominion of . . . the negroes” (93): “In many places they met in the churches the night before, and held all-night watches and prayer meetings. . . . The Baptist church at Hambright was crowded to the doors with white-faced women and sorrowful men. About ten o'clock in the morning, pale and haggard from a sleepless night of prayer and thought, the Preacher arose to address the people” (94). The anxieties expressed by Southern whites in Dixon’s novel resonate with concerns held by plantation owners long before the war.

Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, for example, serves as a historical marker for the cultivation of night-time anxiety among Southern whites. In August 1831, Turner and other rebel slaves used the cover of night to slaughter slaveholding families throughout Southampton County, Virginia. Fears of being murdered in their sleep led plantation owners to further restrict the liberties of both slaves and free blacks in the aftermath of the massacre. Despite harsher slave regulations, the threat of black violence upon sleeping white bodies was ever present in the Antebellum South. In a post-war setting, as in Dixon’s novel, white Southerners feared that black communities—empowered by abolition—would use the cover of night to enact violence upon their sleeping bodies.

Another popular novel at the turn of the century, Albion Tourgee’s A Fool’s Errand (1879)** tells a different story than Dixon’s. It reveals how white supremacist violence prevented Southern blacks from attaining rest. Tourgee’s protagonist, Comfort Servosse, is a Northerner whose efforts to advance black civil rights in North Carolina are constantly stymied by white supremacy. Like Annie in the “Uncle Julius” Tales, Servosse relocates to the South to improve his symptoms of neurasthenia. After settling into a small community similar to Chesnutt’s fictional Patesville, Servosse uncovers the dark side of Southern life in the Reconstruction Era. Halfway through the novel, Servosse cites a newspaper account of the disappearance of John Walters, a black politician, which read: “The niggers of Rockford are in tribulation, but the white people of the good old county will sleep easier” (185). Later, Servosse recounts the discovery that Walters was being held in the courthouse: “The colored people . . . were sure their lost leader was within--dying or dead, they knew not which. They called him by name, but knew he could not answer. None slept of the colored people: they waited, watched, and mourned” (192-3). In Tourgee’s novel, white Southerners can only rest easy when African Americans are plagued with fear. Whereas the whites in Dixon’s stories lose sleep over the fear of abstract black aggression, the whites in A Fool’s Errand “sleep easier” only after the murder of a black leader inflicts anxiety and sleeplessness upon the black community.


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