It’s a Right, Not a Privilege: The Napping Resistance Movement
Who is allowed to rest in American society? Activists and “nap ministers” are embracing sleep as a political act
It’s a chilly Sunday morning at an art gallery on Atlanta’s north west side. The stark room is dark except for the light thrown off by a few dozen flickering candles. Twenty strangers lay motionless on the cement floor. Devotional piano music trickles out from a speaker in the center of the room. Finally, Tricia Hersey strides in. Standing nearly six feet tall, she announces in a booming voice, like a preacher to her flock: “The doors of the Nap Temple are open.”
Hersey, a performance artist and divinity-school graduate, is our Nap Bishop this morning, and she moves and speaks with the conviction of a baptist minister at a tent revival.
“Won’t you come? Won’t you lay?,” she says, as she begins reciting the Nap Manifesto, the document that outlines the mission of the Nap Ministry, which Hersey founded in 2016. “We believe that rest, and napping, provides a healing portal for us to imagine, to hope, to invent, to create, to heal, to rest, to resist.” Photographs are projected onto the wall behind her, images of women and girls at rest interspersed with messages that read, “You are enough,” and “Naps are not lazy.”
“This is an invitation for weary souls to rest,” Hersey continues, walking among the prone bodies as they relax a little more into their mats. “This is a resistance. This is a protest. You are enough. We are enough. Our worth not caught up in the grind of capitalism. You are welcome here. Sleep. Rest. Nap. Dream. Thank you for living. Thank you for resting. Thank you for loving. Thank you for resisting. The doors are open. Won’t you come?”
“Rest isn’t something you need to earn. When I want to lay down and take a nap, that’s a calling.”
For the next 20 minutes or so, attendees will, if they’re lucky, experience a taste of what Hersey found so life-giving when she started napping in 2013 while attending the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. To cope with the stress of her coursework and the inescapable bleakness of the daily news headlines, she took to napping in the quad every day between classes and discovered it had a remarkable calming effect on the rest of her day.
Now Hersey has become the leading voice in a growing tide of activists who embrace napping as a political act, raising questions about who is allowed to rest in our society and who gets to decide if or when that rest has been earned. Seizing on the well-documented racial sleep gap, which shows that Black Americans are five times more likely to be sleep deprived than their white counterparts, these artists, rappers, and theologians are questioning why, for much of modern history, being caught sleeping has been a privilege reserved for the white and wealthy.
Napping 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.
“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.”
While Tricia Hersey was building her movement in Atlanta, halfway across the world a pair of Afro-Latinx artists were planning their own response to the racial sleep gap.
When Black Power Naps/Siestas Negras opened at the Matadero art gallery in Madrid in the summer of 2018, it was a color-splashed fantasy dreamscape of soft lighting, diaphanous fabrics and heavenly surfaces that invited the public, especially racialized and marginalized people, to simply rest. There were air mattresses dressed in silk sheets, waterbeds, floating hammocks, a “pelvic floor trampoline,” and even a soothing “black bean bath” that visitors could climb into. It was free to enter, and a sign near the entrance outlined the rules of the space: “If you see a Black person sleeping, don’t call the police!,” it read.
The brainchild of Sosa and New Yorker Navild Acosta, who came up with the name, Black Power Naps was meant to be a “calming sensory bath” to combat the frenetic energy of the city, but it was also about changing the politics of public space and who is welcomed there.
“If you think about public spaces, spaces of leisure, they are places of hyper-masculinity: sports fields, and skate parks, and football, and frisbee,” says Acosta. “There are not a lot of spaces in which to gather, to organize, to chill, to sleep.”
“We accept people who might not have a function, who might not be going somewhere, or doing anything or being productive,” says Sosa, who has experienced homelessness. “We think they should be honored as well. That really pushes people’s buttons.”
“This really is a practice. It’s helping people to deprogram from brainwashing and from the toxic grind culture. It has to be done consistently.”
Debuting the work in Madrid was no accident. Not only do both artists have connections to Spanish and Portuguese-speaking colonies — Sosa’s father is Black Brazilian, and Acosta is of Dominican descent — they also wanted an opportunity, in addition to focusing on the experience of the Black community, to comment on the inequities of Spanish society, which is often idealized for its imagined work-life balance and its famous siesta.
“In Spain the siesta is great, but it’s [sustained] by labor which is often done by femmes, which is never seen as labor,” says Sosa. “It’s a very acute citizen gap in that so-called siesta.”
“Sure, the shops are closed for two to four hours in the middle of the day, but generally the people of color who are running things behind the scenes are not taking that nap at all,” adds Acosta. “Who has to prepare the food? It can’t just magically appear.”
Just the suggestion of a safe space to rest was enough to make some visitors to Black Power Naps burst into tears. “It’s so emotional,” Sosa says. “We literally see how much life was lost to sleeplessness, [generations of people] that were not able to feel pleasure, not able to have a break. It grips you at your throat when you look at it like that.”
The message resonated: The artists were invited to bring Black Power Naps to New York in January 2019. That same month they were awarded a Creative Capital grant, which will allow them to develop a sleep-technology consultancy based on the healing power of sound waves. They hope Black Power Naps gives POC audiences the courage to advocate for their own leisure time, and inspires white visitors to reckon with what Sosa calls “the psychic remains of slavery,” including sleep deprivation and stereotypes about laziness.
But not everybody has taken kindly to the work. The show’s rest-as-reparations conceit attracted ridicule from a white supremacist website, and a few disrespectful visitors in Madrid damaged portions of the installation.
“We witnessed grown-ass white men testing the limits of the air bed, the waterbed, testing the limits of these soft surfaces as if it were a playground,” Acosta says.
Hersey, the Nap Bishop, has also fielded her share of vitriol, especially on Instagram, where she posts mini-sermons to her nearly 45,000 followers. (Typical post: “The pillows and blankets will be nice and fluffy. The message of resisting white supremacy and capitalism via rest will not.”)
“Hearing me talk about trying to disrupt white supremacy is triggering to a lot of people, specifically white people who have a lot of work to do around their own education and their own healing,” says Hersey. As much as she loves to see others including Black Power Naps and Killer Mike illuminating sleep as a racial justice issue, Hersey stresses that rest as resistance can’t be just a one-off experience.
“This really is a practice,” Hersey says. “It’s helping people to deprogram from brainwashing and from the toxic grind culture. It has to be done consistently.” To that end, Hersey hopes to establish brick-and-mortar nap temples in Atlanta and Chicago in the next few years, where she can host daily naps, workshops, classes, and performances.
“I want people to continue deconstructing their own mind and lifting the veil around these systems that have tricked us into thinking we should feel guilt and shame about something as ancient as sleep,” she says. “My only hope is that people begin to see the beauty of their own selves and of rest, and continue to deconstruct anything that is not liberative. You deserve better.”