Health

It’s a Right, Not a Privilege: The Napping Resistance Movement

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NNapping is enjoying a renaissance. Books like Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep have topped the bestseller list and corporate America is installing nap rooms, “EnergyPods,” and hammocks in offices, all in the spirit of building a better, more productive workforce.

This is not the logic that guides napping advocates like Tricia Hersey.

“This is not just about naps,” she says. “It’s about trying to disrupt and dismantle a toxic system that says you’re not enough.”

The system she’s referring to, of course, is American capitalism, whose founding fathers loudly trumpeted their disdain for sleep. Thomas Edison, despite being frequently photographed taking a nap, boasted of needing just three to four hours of sleep per night. Benjamin Franklin advised in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, “How much more than necessary do we spend in sleep, forgetting that the sleeping fox catches no poultry, and that there will be sleeping enough in the grave?” American culture celebrates these men for their herculean triumph over their own physiology, trading nonproductive rest for work, innovation, and progress.

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“Capitalism doesn’t care who you are,” says Hersey, whose sleep philosophy is grounded in Black liberation theology and the notion that capitalism and white supremacy are intimately intertwined. “It wants to use anyone’s body as a tool for production. It wants you to work a hundred hours a week if you can.”

“Rest isn’t something you need to earn,” she continues. “When I want to lay down and take a nap, that’s a calling. I should listen to my divine body and wash away the concept that I should have to feel guilt and shame around it. It’s toxic and not true.”

The rapper Killer Mike may have invented a tongue-in-cheek Church of Sleep on his Netflix show Trigger Warning, but Tricia Hersey has been spreading that gospel for real, by holding pop-up collective napping events in Atlanta and Chicago for the last two years. Though her naps have started to draw serious crowds, the Nap Ministry began when she was at seminary. “Everyone was doing a ministry,” Hersey says. At first, she referred to her daily snoozes as her “nap ministry,” but when she really thought about it, she realized there might be more to the practice. What if something as simple as a midday nap could reclaim what many feel this system has stolen: the right to rest?

At the time, Hersey was working as an assistant to the archivist of the African American collection at Emory University’s Rare Books Library, where she’d become consumed with researching slave narratives — trying to imagine what her ancestors’ daily life was like, down to the smallest detail.

“I was seeing all these documents from plantations in the South: A horse: $50. One Black child: $20,” she remembers. “I was crying over those archives of African American people being human machines, and I became obsessed with the micro-details of their daily life in the cotton fields. What time did they wake up? When did they finish? All these small details I never knew. What about the women who were pregnant? What happened at night, how did they see? What kind of lights were guiding their way?”

“I wanted to push back against the wellness culture that’s so white. I want wellness to be normative for Black people. We need rest the most.”

Hersey, whose great-grandparents were sharecroppers, began reflecting on what it must have been like for her ancestors to have no agency over their own time or bodies, to be unable to rest when they physically could work no longer. In these narratives of plantation life, Hersey saw the roots of the racial sleep gap; as Frederick Douglas wrote, “more ‘(slaves) are whipped for oversleeping than any other fault.” She started to think about rest as not only a spiritual practice, but a form of reparations for her enslaved ancestors.

Hersey held her first public nap in Atlanta in 2017. To her surprise, dozens of people showed up.

“Sleeping is such a vulnerable place. I just couldn’t believe that people I didn’t know would come and be so vulnerable with me,” she recalls. The sight of so many people sleeping together struck her powerfully. Napping as an individual act of resistance became even more potent when done in a group.

“When you see 40 people sleeping together at the same time, it’s direct action,” Hersey says. “It’s the exact same thing as going to a protest march.”

Hersey argues that, for Black people in America, napping is nothing short of a revolutionary act. It’s such a rare sight, in fact, that she had trouble finding images for the slideshow that plays behind her as she delivers her sermons.

“It’s hard to find stock photos of (Black people) resting,” she says. Most of the existing imagery meant to promote rest, relaxation, and other concepts associated with the multibillion-dollar “wellness” industry features thin white women in expensive yoga pants, holding crystals.

“I wanted to push back against the wellness culture that’s so white,” Hersey says. “I want wellness to be normative for Black people. We need rest the most.”

According to a large-scale 2015 study, Black Americans get less sleep than any other ethnic group — almost a full hour less per night than their white counterparts. That gap narrows slightly when controlling for class, but even wealthy African Americans don’t sleep as well as their non-Black neighbors. Reasons for this range from environmental factors (unequal access to safe, comfortable places to sleep) to psychological ones (such as the stress caused by experiencing discrimination).

“Even when they have space to sleep and a nice bed, some people mentally cannot go there,” says Hersey, who adds that much of her job is attending to her parishioners’ emotions. After the nap is finished, Hersey usually facilitates a “Nap Talk,” where participants often display emotions ranging from tears to shame to relief. “A lot of the work has been pastoral care; just me rubbing people’s backs and saying, ‘it’s OK, you’re enough, you can rest.’”

For Constance Collier-Mercado, that reassurance was vital.

“The word ‘lazy’ is so embedded in every memory I have,” says the Atlanta-based writer and artist, who attended her first Nap Ministry event almost a year ago. Never much of a napper, she didn’t expect to actually fall asleep during Hersey’s event. Who could sleep surrounded by so many strangers? But something about it captivated her.

“I was really intrigued by this idea of napping in community. It had a ritual feeling to it,” she says. Sleeping in a group also seemed less indulgent, somehow. And she was able to snooze. Collier-Mercado lives with lupus, an often invisible disease characterized by fatigue and joint pain that she controls with steroids — which, in turn, make falling asleep difficult. As her disease progressed, Collier-Mercado was forced to accept that her body can’t do the things it used to do.

“I’ve been slowing down and doing less, but with that comes a lot of shame and guilt,” she explains. “But with communal napping, it’s like, if you take a nap and I take a nap, I don’t have to feel guilty about my nap because we’re both doing it together.”

Slowing down is counterintuitive for Collier-Mercado. Born in Chicago and raised in New York, she says she’s been steeped in the mindset of hustle and grind for as long as she can remember, but Hersey’s work made her reconsider the messages she absorbed growing up.

“It’s always been my Black and brown counterparts and friends talking about you have to hustle to get over the system, to get past the hurdles. You have to grind because nobody’s going to wait for you, nobody’s going to give you a minute to catch your breath,” she says. “Unlike people who have money and a safety net, (for us) there is no safety net. But why are we the ones who don’t have the luxury? Where does that idea of laziness come from?”

Collier-Mercado started attending Nap Ministry events every chance she got. Recently, another woman in the room wept as Hersey recited a certain line in the manifesto, the one that says, “Thank you for living.”

“She said she’d never heard it put that way: thank you for being alive in this world. As if just being alive were not enough,” Collier-Mercado recalls. “I think there are a lot of folks of color who feel they are not seen and not valued.”

The Nap Ministry has allowed Collier-Mercado to carve out a little space for herself, to let things be as they are. “I left with a kernel of peace,” she says. “Each time I come back, I get a little more of that kernel.”

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