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    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.

    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.”

    physician Samuel Cartwright, who conducted a widely disseminated study
    of the medical condition of slaves, also believed that differences in
    sleeping were evidence of the natural supremacy of the white race. He
    claimed that black people at rest instinctively smothered their own
    faces with blankets or clothing, impeding the flow of oxygen to the
    brain, and that this obstruction permanently stunted their intellectual
    development. As for slaves who wandered exhausted across the plantation,
    he considered this a special kind of black-people disease known as “dysaesthesia aethiopica.” The cure, Cartwright counseled, was “hard work in the open air” and increased discipline on the part of the slaveholders.

    killing labors, constant anxiety and wretched sleeping conditions of
    slavery no doubt produced chronic fatigue, and yet Jefferson and
    Cartwright perversely identified exhaustion as the problem and hard work
    as the cure. Such cures were often administered at the end of a whip.
    As Frederick Douglass put it in his memoir, “More slaves were whipped
    for oversleeping than for any other fault.” Douglass went as far as to
    suggest that keeping the enslaved population in a state of constant
    fatigue was a useful tool in breaking their will. He wrote that, on
    Sundays, he regularly found himself “in a beast-like state, between
    sleep and wake” that made it impossible for him to act on the “flash of
    energetic freedom [that] would dart through my soul.” Sinking back to
    the ground, he would simply mourn over his “wretched condition.”

    remains of this history is a profound confusion as to the causes and
    effects of our racial inequalities. Out of Jefferson and Cartwright’s
    pseudo-scientific racism, the stereotype of the “lazy black man” was
    given medical legitimacy: Exhaustion was seen as a character trait
    requiring more hard work, rather than an effect of a fractured sleeping
    environment and extreme physical and emotional duress.

    To this
    day, opportunities for sound sleep are distributed unequally among the
    races, while the effects of such disparities are frequently
    misidentified. For example, minority students who perform poorly on
    tests, appear apathetic or act out in school are often blamed for lack
    of will or poor values, when in fact they may be irritable, depressed,
    or unfocused in large part because they’re tired and stressed. An
    ongoing study by psychologist Tiffany Yip of Fordham University examines
    the joint effects of ethnic discrimination and sleep deprivation on
    African American and Latino youth; her preliminary findings suggest a
    vicious cycle in which experiences of discrimination lead to poor sleep,
    which in turn leads to higher levels of anxiety, lower engagement in
    school and deepening problems of self-esteem.

    Some pediatricians, psychologists and public health advocates
    are beginning to understand that detection, prevention and treatment of
    poor sleep is an important aspect of improving the educational
    performance of socioeconomically disadvantaged children. Little public
    attention, however, is given to the more pervasive problem of unequal
    sleeping conditions that is borne of our troublesome racial history.

    quarters are now tourist attractions, but the descendants of enslaved
    Africans are still more likely than whites to live in inhospitable
    sleeping environments. As public health scholar Lauren Hale points out,
    African Americans tend to live in noisier and more dangerous urban
    environments than whites; such environments may lead to shorter and
    shallower sleep. African Americans are also more likely to have
    undesirable or unpredictable work schedules than whites, which leads to
    chaotic sleep schedules. Increased risk of hunger as well as fear of
    violence or of harassment by police make a good night’s sleep even
    harder to obtain.

    Langston Hughes
    described American slavery as “the rock on which/Freedom stumped its
    toe.” As we attempt to address the inequities of wealth, education,
    health and incarceration that persist across the color line, we would do
    well to remember that these problems were formed by night as well as by
    day. If we want to close that gap, we’ll have to confront Hughes’
    stubborn rock, which for too many serves in place of a pillow.

    Benjamin Reiss, a professor of English at Emory University, is the author most recently of “Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World.” He wrote previously for Opinion on why we make children sleep alone.