Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


 A footnote in the Norton Critical Edition of The Conjure Stories provides historical context for this opening description: "With John's description of hearing the 'drumming' and 'chattering' of the frogs, Chesnutt recalls antebellum accounts by white residents of plantations of hearing goings-on from the slave quarters at night" (112). 

Jonathan White's study Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams During the Civil War (2017) provides further context: "Nighttime was a restless time for slaves. After dark, slaves often did things that might earn them stripes from the overseer's lash if they were caught. Some slaves taught themselves to read at night. Others worked in the dark, making things that they could sell to earn some money for themselves or even to purchase their own freedom. But some slaves were not even permitted the luxury of working for themselves at night, particularly during busy harvesting seasons. One free "Creole mulatto" from New Orleans testified in February 1864 that the 'hours of labor on sugar plantations are from fifteen to eighteen hours per day for the year; at certain seasons they are obliged to labor a great part of the night; they are usually called at 3 or 4 a.m.' The labor that slaves performed both night and day took a toll on their health; some remarked that they were often too tired to even stand. Abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld complained that the system of slavery did not permit the slave certain basic liberties, such as the freedom 'to rest when he is tired, to sleep when he needs it'" (84-5).

In contrast to the plethora of medical reports that featured pseudoscientific pronouncements about certain sleep traits being markers of racial characteristics (ex: Cartwright's Dysæsthesia Æthiopis), other reports warned enslavers that cruel sleeping conditions led to unwanted deaths. In “Reports from Mississippi," published in an 1851 issue of Southern Medical Reports,* Affleck, Thomas Affleck declares that the “The principal causes of sickness upon plantations are the use of spring, well, creek or bayou water, . . . night work and night rambles. . . . They should drop all work in time to have a couple of hours before the bell rings for bed, and for seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep; and should have Sunday afternoon, whenever work is not unusually pressing for washing, house-cleaning, tending their crops, etc. . . . Badly cooked food . . . and a want of cleanliness” (433).


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