Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


Tobe's postulation to Aunt Peggy--'En whar is I gwine to sleep dyo'in' er dat mont'? I'll hafter hab my reg'lar res'.'--underscores the value Tobe places in restorative rest and reveals his understanding of his own sleep rhythms and bodily needs. 

This understanding reflects what Frederick Douglass, in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855),* as the "healing angel wing of sleep" for the enslaved: I felt not only grieved at parting-as I supposed forever-with my grandmother, but indignant that a trick had been played upon me in a matter so serious. It was now late in the afternoon. The day had been an exciting and wearisome one, and I knew not how or where, but I suppose I sobbed myself to sleep. There is a healing in the angel wing of sleep, even for the slave-boy; and its balm was never more welcome to any wounded soul than it was to mine, the first night I spent at the domicile of old master" (49). 

In Sarah Hopkins Bradford’s biography of Harriet Tubman (1886),** she describes how sleep deprivation--"the long habit of enforced wakefulness"--prepared Harriet Tubman for her eventual escape: "When the labors, unremitted for a moment, of the long day were over (for this mistress was an economical woman, and intended to get the worth of her money to the uttermost farthing), there was still no rest for the weary child, for there was a cross baby to be rocked continuously, lest it should wake and disturb the mother's rest. The black child sat beside the cradle of the white child, so near the bed, that the lash of the whip would reach her if she ventured for a moment to forget her fatigues and sufferings in sleep. The Mistress reposed upon her bed with the whip on a little shelf over her head. People of color are, unfortunately, so constituted that even if the pressure of a broken skull does not cause a sleep like the sleep of the dead, the need of rest, and the refreshment of slumber after a day of toil, were often felt by them. No doubt, this was a great wrong to their masters, and a cheating them of time which belonged to them, but their slaves did not always look upon it in that light, and tired nature would demand her rights; and so nature and the Mistress had a fight for it. Rock, rock, went the cradle, and mother and child slept; but alas! the little black hand would sometimes slip down, and the head would droop, and a dream of home and mother would visit the weary one, only to be roughly dispelled by the swift descent of the stinging lash, for the baby had cried out and the mother had been awakened. This is no fictitious tale. That poor neck is even now covered with the scars which sixty years of life have not been able to efface. It may be that she was thus being prepared by the long habit of enforced wakefulness, for the night watches in the woods, and in dens and caves of the earth, when the pursuers were on her track, and the terrified ones were trembling in her shadow" (19-21).
Despite these accounts (or perhaps in spite of them), early-twentieth-century medical science perpetuated myths about Black sleeping habits that developed early on in the antebellum period. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785),*** Thomas Jefferson's writes that Blacks "seem to require less sleep" (145): "A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior" (145-6).

Over a century later in 1915, Bruce Addington in his medical treatise Sleep and Sleeplessness**** cites Jefferson's assumptions as if they were scientific fact: "[T]hat shrewd philosopher-statesman, Jefferson, recorded in his Notes on Virginia, 'The existence of the Negro slaves in America appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions and unemployed in their labor'" (24).


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