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Resting While Black

I am coming to accept that the Hot Girl Summer I was looking forward to might become an extended season of self-isolation, or maybe some parody of The Purge where people fight over packages of toilet paper, while neglecting the soap and disinfectant aisles altogether (as if that isn’t part of the reason we’re in this situation in the first place). To soften the blow of this realization, I decided to use this time as an opportunity to catch up on Netflix shows. I started with one called “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike.”

One of my favorite episodes in the pilot season has been episode four, “New Jesus.” In it, Killer Mike, a rapper and activist from Atlanta, Ga., takes a radical departure from western Christianity as he confronts traditional ideas of holiness. A bid to destroy the myth of a white Jesus savior while uplifting a group of Black people turned into a sermon at the Blue Flame Lounge complete with pillows, a joint and strippers.

All of the newly ordained “disciples” expressed the same thing: They were more familiar with fight and struggle than they were with moments of peace and rest. One woman in particular said, “I just want to be recognized as a Black woman. I don’t need the ‘strong’ in front of it. I think that being strong is a great characteristic. … I don’t want to be everything for everybody because it leaves too little for me.” This moment of raw honesty resonated with many, including me as a Black femme. I believe many of us are familiar with the idea that our value and valor lies in martyrdom.

Killer Mike gave these parting words: “This [ministry] is not [a way of] saying ‘I don’t have to practice charity,’ but ‘I don’t have to be a martyr every day.'” Mostly everyone left the sermon noticeably uplifted in mood and outlook, and upon hearing positive feedback and seeing the transformation, I began to recognize the value in communal healing spaces for kinfolk from all walks of life. I asked myself, what does it mean to rest? Where do I go to rest? How do we envision sustainable spaces for our people to come rest and just be?

As a collective, we have internalized stigma surrounding rest or any form of non-productivity. Rise and Grind and Roc Nation Brunch Twitter, and other spaces and influencers of culture in our day echo the idea that rest is the biggest adversary of wealth and success. These beliefs stem from a deep impression on our collective consciousness that can be traced back to slavery (and its mutation into the prison-industrial complex) and characterizes American capitalism.

Frederick Douglass recalls in his autobiography that enslaved people were whipped for over-sleeping more than for any other fault. Reconstruction era laws such as the Vagrancy Act of 1866 essentially reinstituted slavery in all but its name and relied on stereotypes of the “lazy Negro” to enforce them, forcing people to work if they even appeared to be unemployed or homeless. Essentially, this meant any form of rest— let alone the appearance of it— carried consequence. The effects of this still haunt us to this day by way of over-policing, overexerting ourselves, the perpetual side hustle the list goes on. Many of the obstacles and barriers poor, working-class Black people face at disproportionate rates confirm the race for basic financial stability comes at a personal cost.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become increasingly evident that essential workers placed on the frontlines of our economy are disproportionately Black, female and poor, and are mainly employed in service and healthcare industries. Many roles in these industries require close proximity to others and offer less access to telecommuting or other options that would mitigate risk. Reported infection rates reveal insufficient workplace protections and financial compensation such as sick leave from employers, especially when considering the risks in fulfilling said roles. With the surge in lay-offs from restaurants, local businesses, hotels, etc. , effects of a looming recession are linked to additional health impacts and higher mortality rates.

When Solange sang “Dollars never show up on CP time,” I felt that. Despite the clear knowledge rest should be a priority, some days even the thought of rest or slowing down seems like a luxury I cannot afford. I think about the many ways we are still penalized in the modern-day workforce for “looking lazy” or not doing enough on the clock, and the ways our lives are still tethered to a dollar bill. How many of us can say we get at least seven hours of restorative sleep on a regular basis?

It’s for this reason Atlanta-based organization The Nap Ministry, founded by Tricia Hersey, is becoming all the more important. Led by the belief that “You don’t have to earn rest,” Hersey examines the liberating power of naps and addresses sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue. Hersey says, “Rest is not a privilege, it’s a right. The reality that so many think it’s a privilege solidifies the need for a rest movement. If you re-imagine rest in an expansive way and outside of the parameters of capitalism and colonization, you will realize that you can rest anytime.”

Photo courtesy The Nap Ministry.

The fact that this work is being organized by a Black woman is no insignificant matter. The COVID-19 pandemic is placing already vulnerable demographics of our population at further risk; stories like Lelani Jordan’s come to mind. Hersey’s work magnifies the importance of Black women’s health and livelihood, considering our production (and reproduction) are the foundation of America.

Even with the organization’s emphasis on the physical act of napping, Hersey explores what it means to engage in intentional rest outside of the act of sleep itself. “A rest practice transcends laying on a bed and going through a full sleep cycle. Rest as resistance is an ethos, a dream space, a slowing down mentally, deep breathing and imagination for what can be.” How many times have you slept but woken up feeling just as tired, if not more so? And what was on your mind before then? Did you go to bed stressed? Sad? Angry? Anxious?

It is not just about sleep but the quality of rest you are engaging in as well. It is important to move outside of sleeping for the function of sleep itself and, rather, consider the quality of rest in sleep we receive. Hersey emphasizes “this is about more than naps. Daydreaming, radical pausing, slowing down, saying no, detoxing from media, sitting on the couch for extra 10 minutes with your eyes closed, not being addicted to emails, reclaiming your time and getting off your phone sometimes is all part of the resistance.” Hersey thinks of the rest as a practice, one that (re)connects our physical bodies with our mental, and spiritual states of being.

Photo courtesy The Nap Ministry

This pandemic has quickly revealed deep inequities to one of the most fundamental tenets to our human existence. While much more must be done to address and rectify the deep injustices that comprise the fabric of this nation, prioritizing rest as a practice is one of the biggest ways we can claim agency over our beings on all fronts. It is vital that we shift our relationship to rest from one that is rooted in survival to one that centers restoration and thriving, especially within a system that functions on our demise.

So as we move forward in these unprecedented times, how will you rest?


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