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Racial Justice

Q&A: Nap Ministry's Tricia Hersey talks rest and racial justice

The Nap Ministry continues to examine rest as resistance through collective napping experiences, performance art, and more.
Patrisse Cullors & Autumn Breon Williams September 3rd, 2020
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What makes Tricia Hersey’s Nap Ministry so profound is that she challenges the idea of laziness. She challenges the relationship between Black people and the kind of work that we have produced and been forced to do for so long. She brings us closer to how we understand rest: how rest is revolutionary. When we think about how long Black people were enslaved and how long their freedom was contested and Black people had to fight physically, spiritually, economically, and culturally for their livelihood. The timeline of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is roughly between 1525 and 1866. That is 300 years of exploitation of millions of Black people, from sunrise to sunset, from childhood to death. This is the memory we carry in our bodies—both of the generations of exhaustion and the legacy of resilience as we boldly and innovatively created our traditions of survival. This genetic memory is one we should honor and Hersey’s work does just that.

A native of the South Side of Chicago, Hersey is based in Atlanta and founded The Nap Ministry in 2016 to reframe rest as a spiritual and productive practice. Hersey started dreaming about The Nap Ministry while she was in divinity school at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. While in her graduate program, Hersey experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. She was studying and writing until the early hours of the morning only to wake up for early morning classes. She unexpectedly lost two family members. During her commute with her six-year-old son from school to home, she was robbed of her notes for the first sermon she was meant to preach. In the midst of these trying circumstances, the police brutality against Black people and Black death that Hersey was constantly exposed to via television news and social media left her traumatized. Hersey was sick and tired of being sick and tired and ready to quit her graduate program. 

Instead, she began taking naps on her campus and experiencing what she describes as the “healing portals” of napping. As she napped in the quad, the chapel, the library, and throughout Emory’s campus, she also researched the commodification of Black bodies and consequential physical manifestation of trauma during slavery and the Jim Crow era. Hersey examined these histories through the lenses of Black liberation theology and womanist theology. The Nap Ministry continues to examine rest as resistance through collective napping experiences, immersive writing workshops, site-specific installations, and performance art. During The Nap Ministry’s collective napping experiences, Hersey has converted parks, museums, and art galleries into sacred, safe spaces for attendees to publicly nap and benefit from the healing and revolutionary power of sleep. Hersey, the self-styled “Nap Bishop,” even practices what she preaches. Earlier this summer, she publicly shared her decision to sign off from social media and emails in order to privately mourn and process the impact of the global pandemic and loss of Black lives.

Lack of sleep increases stress and creates instability in our personal and collective lives—so what happens to a community when we are not resting appropriately, are not allowed to rest, or cannot rest because our physical conditions do not give us the space to rest? The act of sleeping and resting becomes an affront to white supremacy. As Hersey reminds us, even in the midst of incredible strides in social justice movement work, we must take a moment to center rest as collective practice. This praxis is not just relegated to the recreational, privileged, or a luxury, but is an intentional honoring of ancestral technologies of resistance. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Autumn Breon Williams: How have capitalism and colonization influenced rest?

Tricia Hersey: Both of those systems have distorted rest and bamboozled us and lied about rest. I always say on my page that everything you've ever learned about rest, about sleep, about slowing down, you have to unlearn it because it's all been a lie, every single thing. I think the entire culture has pushed and switched, tricked and bamboozled us in a way that we think something that's a divine right as a human right is now some luxury, some privilege.

I don't think most people really have a true idea of what rest and sleep is for our bodies, for our spirit, for our culture. They really just think it's something that I'll do once I'm finished doing everything else. And so, [there’s this] grind culture, which I say is white supremacy and capitalism, kind of blended together. It's the thing that started when our ancestors were on plantations—the culture of seeing human beings as machines. The word ‘grind’—when you think about gears and grinding on a machine—it sees our bodies and who we are as just being machines for production. That's the center of the foundation of the belief, and everything about rest has been distorted because of that.

Williams: I read a quote from another interview that you did, and you said, “We can find liberation because our body is a site of liberation.” I'm curious about when you realized that your body is liberation.

Hersey: The Nap Ministry has like, four main tenets, and “our bodies are a site of liberation” is one of them. It's what moves the work that's understanding of what our bodies are for us, and what they do, and why we're in them, and it's really deeply, fully in a spiritual lens and also thinking about somatics and embodiment and what our bodies hold. I'm really thinking about the body as the center of [the] foundation of our connection to the Creator, our connection to our ancestors, our connections to the universe, to nature.

Whenever we're looking for liberation, we can find it by just activating the power of who we are. It really goes back to looking at people as divinity, as divine, and our divinity being shining through like that. I think I started to really understand that, when I was really younger. I grew up in the Black church. My dad was a preacher and pastor in the Pentecostal church, the Church of God in Christ. And I know Christianity has a lot to be critiqued for, but for me, the Black church was really the first place where I understood black liberation. Because this denomination, particularly the Church of God in Christ, is one of the oldest Black Pentecostal denominations in the country. It was founded by enslaved people, Africans who remixed a religion that was being placed on them, it was full autonomy. I grew up going into a Black church and seeing Black people own the building, own the land, you know, being able to heal themselves and because it's Pentecostal, I was able to see the body being a vehicle for that spirit. Pentecostals believe in the Black church that you can heal yourself, [in] the laying on of hands and tarrying. I watched my mom and the rest of the mothers of the church have someone who was trying to heal from drug addiction, they put them in the middle of a circle and they will tarry over them for hours, repeating, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus, bless.” Just repeating these words, [it’s] very African-centered, remixing from what Africans saw from African Indigenous religions and then watching it be placed in Christianity. So as a young child, I saw people pass out, fall out, speak in tongues; I saw someone who would be in the circle and then once the healing would come they would look totally different. I've seen people’s faces that just look so clean and white and light and I watched Black people—my mom, my dad, my parents—in this church really see the body as a seat of where they could heal themselves and see the spirit in God. I think growing up watching that, it actually ties into my work as a performance artist because I'm really interested in the body.

Patrisse Cullors: I'd love to hear about what you find significant about Black bodies resting.

Hersey: I'm very intentional about that. I think just the sight of seeing a Black body at rest is radical, is liberating. It's freedom. It's shocking. And I do it. I want Black bodies to be shown resting any and every time, and I think when I think about my performance work as the Nap Bishop that was always the beginning nexus of it. My first event that I ever did for The Nap Ministry was a one woman show performance I called Transfiguration where I was just laying on the bed, sleeping and reading slave narratives. And, you know, the crowd was watching me while I'm on this bed that was covered in cotton from [a] Black farm in North Carolina. I really wanted people to just see me laying down, just to see a Black woman in this body be laying down on a bed in the middle of the day while you guys are watching. You're not laying down, I'm laying down, and I'm gonna own this space.

I think seeing that in this culture in this culture where Black bodies are looked at as a problem, where Black bodies are looked at as something shameful, something that wants and needs to be ended and the violence of trauma that’s happened to our bodies, to see us in a rest state, to see us relaxing and laying back is really, really powerful.

I'm true to that because from the beginning when I started, I said I'll never put up a photo [on my Instagram page] that isn't a Black body resting. I'm very subversive in that way. I just want people to notice it, and then see, because I think seeing a Black person laying down in a safe and rested position, not in the position of terror or of violence, but in a beautiful, sacred space that’s held, I think that alone can shift consciousness to see that and can also illuminate the issue of sleep deprivation being a racial justice issue. When I first started talking about The Nap Ministry, they were like, “What does sleeping have to do with racial justice?” [or] “What does sleep have to do with white supremacy?” and the dots weren't connecting. So I have to keep connecting the dots, and I think visually having imagery is helpful.

Williams: You talked about your first performance piece. What inspired your public napping installation?

Hersey: I've been doing performance art and theater-making for 20 years, and the Nap Ministry has been around since 2016. So pre- the Nap Ministry, I've been doing all this performance art and all of my art always centered on being outside. I love doing outdoor spectacles, guerilla art interventions, but all of my art is always outdoors. I had a character, a persona that I created called Lady Tara, a woman who goes outside and she's on a soap box that she built in her basement. She's kind of lost her sense of patience for waiting for the world to be upset and angry about what's happening to Black people. So she builds a soapbox and screams in people's faces on bullhorn, so I will go out in Chicago and do all these outdoor events where I was just bringing his character to life. It was always important that I wasn't lost inside of a building, where things could be hidden. It was always important for me to be in the streets, in the community, co-collaborating and doing art with the people, and DIY. We can do it ourselves. I don’t have to wait to get a grant. I don't have to wait for a theater to invite me in and say “you can use it.” I can create or I can go outside in my yard right now and I'll put on the show and we'll build a stage and we'll create.

I also think it decolonizes art to have people to see that we don't have to wait for institutions to tell us what is art, we don't have to wait for someone to say, “Oh, this is okay as art because we're putting it here at the Smithsonian.” No, you don't get to say that. Art to me is what I say it is.

Cullors: I'm so enthralled by this. So the next question I have for you: Is there a relationship between rest and abolition?

Hersey: Yes, absolutely. I always go back to what I believe at the core rest is, what I believe a rest resistance looks like. People get me confused. They don't really know where to put my work. They know I'm an artist so they can put it there. They learn I'm a theologian so they can kind of put it in that place. I'm a community activist, they know I used to be [a] spiritual director and do counseling. So they think it's wellness, mental health, and it's all those things. It's public health as well. I have a public health degree, I'm really into community health and science and things like that. It has so many legs that it can fit on.

At the end of the day, for us to imagine a new world, a new world that centers liberation, equality and justice, rest is going to have to be our center foundation. We will not be able to create these new inventive ways of being from an exhaustive state, and that goes to abolition. When it comes to abolishing prisons and abolishing the police state, all these things, we won't be able to figure out a new way and hold space for each other to exist and thrive in this new liberated future.

When we think about abolition and in any type of justice movement in this liberation movement, work has been done for us before this—we're not living in a bubble. People for hundreds of years have been doing work around abolition and liberation of Black people. We’re not going to be able to tap into that from a rushed, exhausted, mind can't think, unclear [space]. The science of it is not going to go there.

When we’re rested, our brain is at its peak height to be able to receive information to create, to invent, to imagine. Invention, imagination, creativity, disruption, coming up with on the fly subversive ideas to make stuff happen, this radical way of thinking that we need to really support a whole new system is not going to come from an exhaustive state.

Williams: You were talking about how everything that we've learned about rest has to be unlearned because of white supremacy and capitalism. I've heard you describe rest as liberation as counterintuitive. So as essential as rest is for our liberation, how do you think we get an entire people to understand something that's so counterintuitive?

Hersey:  It's very, very, very hard. I love to rant about the idea of the word resistance and rebellion. You know, it's real cute on a hashtag to say “Rest is resistance.” But if you look up what resistance means and do a word study and study what a resistance movement has looked like in our world and since antiquity, it’s some hard, deep shit. I think people don't get that. They think, “Oh, this is just so cute. I can just lay down and it's cool.” No, no, no, this is going to be some roll your sleeves up, get ready.

We're going to have to resist, and I don't think people right now in this culture understand what that means. They don't really understand deeply what a resistance looks like and how that's going to be something that's going to be a lifelong deprogramming. I tell people we've been brainwashed deeply and so we've been brainwashed since before we were born. You think about Black people, you think about Black women and women of color who are dying while they’re having babies because of the healthcare system rushing them and not caring for their bodies and not listening to them. They rushed me into having a C-section with my son because the doctor thought he was too big and she didn't want to have to deal with a lawsuit, so I fought with this woman about not having a C-section because she wanted to rush it and rush him out of my womb so that she can move on with her day. Then you talk about babies and young people in public schools and teaching them already to rush, not to listen to their bodies, to push through, not to sleep, to stay up, to grind. You grind now, sleep later, and so I don't see [the shift] being something that's going to happen overnight. I see this being a meticulous love practice. It's gonna go on forever, you know. It’s gonna be a new way of thinking and living that's going to actually be sustaining us for the rest of creation.

I want to go slow with it and be very realistic that this is going to be a slow, deep unlearning. I'm very easy with people and tell them, be easy on yourselves. I know you feel guilty. I know you feel shame. I know you grinded last night because you have to get some extra money at work to live in a capitalist system, in a white supremacist system. I understand there are the limits and the boundaries. So that's why I ask people to begin to tap into their imagination. Rest is imagination work. It's about reclaiming and reimagining what you can be. It's about tapping into your senses in a way that this world hasn't allowed you to. You're gonna have to be flexible, you're going to have to be subversive.

Cullors: Yeah, all of that. I'm gonna ask my final question. If you can give a tag line for the rest movement what would it be?

Hersey: Yes, the movement is “rest as resistance.” The movement is “we will rest.” It's not, “we thinking about resting,” or “can we rest?” We're gonna rest, we will rest, rest is resistance. And so, that's what I've been putting on the end of a lot of my captions when I write captions, it’s “we will rest,” and I love to put the “we” in there because it's a collective thing, this is a collective. This is not about self-care. Off top. This is about community care. I don't care nothing about no self, [this is] community, collective, communal, interconnected care, it's not about self care.

It's not a self care wellness movement honey, it’s about pushing back; it’s a political and social justice movement. “Rest as resistance” is the framework that I created that involves and brings into all these different layers—Black liberation theology, womanism, art, somatics, reparations theory, Afro-futurism is blended. It’s a framework that looks at rest as disruption and sleep as being a disruption. I want to keep bringing home the word resistance, I want people to break it down deeply to understand what it is. It's hard work. And that's part of why it's called resistance.


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