Dreams Deferred

Even in sleep, African Americans are treated unequally.

| Fall 2018

  • Fewer black people are able to sleep for the recommended six to nine hours nightly than any other ethnic group in the United States.
    Photo by Getty Images/Digitalskillet

When we study racial inequality, we tend to consider factors that affect people while they are awake. Differential access to safe neighborhoods with good schools, decent jobs, and unbalanced treatment by police and the courts surely have much to do with the stubborn disparities in wealth and well-being, in particular among blacks and whites. Yet it may be just as important to consider what happens when we’re asleep. Race shapes our sleep, a relationship that has surprising roots deep in our national past.

African Americans suffer from a “sleep gap”: fewer black people are able to sleep for the recommended six to nine hours nightly than any other ethnic group in the United States. Compounding matters, a smaller percentage of African Americans’ slumber is spent in “slow-wave sleep,” the deepest and most restorative phase of sleep that produces the most benefits in healing and cognition. Poor sleep has cascading effects on racial health disparities, including increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The racial sleep gap is largely a matter of unequal access to safe, reliable, and comfortable sleep environments, and this sleeping inequality has a long history. For centuries, whites have tacitly accepted — and even actively created — such inequality. Aboard the ships of the transatlantic slave trade, African captives were made to sleep en masse in the hold, often while chained together. Once in the New World, enslaved people were usually still made to sleep in tight quarters, sometimes on the bare floor, and they struggled to snatch any sleep at all while chained together in the coffle. Slaveholders systematically disallowed privacy as they attempted round-the-clock surveillance, and enslaved women were especially susceptible at night to sexual assault from white men.

One might think that slaveholders, looking out for their bottom line, would be interested in ensuring at least a modicum of restful slumber for their enslaved workers. The social reformer Thomas Tryon made this argument in 1684 when he wrote of “inconsiderate masters” who compel the enslaved to work so hard that they were often so “overcome with weariness and want of proper Rest” that they would “fall into the fierce boyling Syrups” of the sugar pots. Ensuring proper rest, he wrote, “would add much to their Profit” as well as to the slaves’ health.

Yet just as often, slaveholders justified overwork and minimal rest as a positive good, in the process elaborating curious theories about the supposed natural differences between the races.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, opined that black people simply “require less sleep” than whites. And while he noted enslaved people’s propensity to drop off quickly at the end of a long day, he convinced himself that a rapid descent into sleep was evidence of inferior intellects (rather than insufficient rest). White people, he observed, could keep themselves up late into the night to pursue intellectual or creative endeavors, whereas “negroes” were deficient in the powers of “reflection” that allowed them to do so: “An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course.”