Here at the Mecca, under pain of selection, we have made a home. As do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, vials and hopscotch squares. As do black people dancing at rent parties, as do black people at their family reunions where we are regarded as survivors of catastrophe. As do black people toasting their cognac and German beers, passing their blunts and debating MCs. As do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon the shores.– Ta–Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
I just finished Ta–Nehisi Coates’ brilliant letter to his son. “I write you in your 15th year”, he says. “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. . . I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.” I have only read this book once, and I know I will read it again; it is beautifully written and full of passionate insights. And it got me thinking about the black power movement that so deeply affected me in my late teens and twenties, and my first exposure to this movement, which arrived in a circuitous fashion that was quite personal.
In my freshman year of college, I was invited to join a sorority in which I was the only Jew. I discovered this fact when I was told, “You don’t look Jewish”, as if that were a compliment. For the first time, I felt that faintly uncomfortable sense of tokenism, knowing somehow that I was representing “my people”, but only because I fit in to “their” world. I’m sure that my response at the time was to smile, because I had been socialized that way. Perhaps it was a confused smile that attempted to cover up any latent anger doused with gratefulness for being accepted in this upper-class bastion where I did not belong. I continued to hang out with friends from my freshman dorm who had also joined the sorority, creating a transition to this new world as I walked a tight rope of social acceptance, wearing outside markers of belonging, with long flowing straight hair, short skirts and hip boots with heels. It all seemed so “natural”.
The sorority was housed in a giant mansion where we “sisters” were invited to partake in formal dinners served by young college students whose lower class brought them to their jobs as “houseboys”, young men who were not allowed to enter through the front door, but came to work instead through the kitchen in the back of the house. This was not the South, as you might be imagining. This was Syracuse, New York in 1968. Meanwhile, I was having fun with my old friends from the dorm who had joined the sorority, and was excited about the prospect of sisterhood. Only occasionally was I feeling pangs of dissonance, despite my excitement about feeling welcomed. My parallel passion was dance, “my true home”, and I had jumped head first into the Dance Club at my university, because there was no dance major in those days. It was there that I found the greatest solace and a full spectrum of kindred spirits. The world of dance was a place that had always felt like home.
After my first summer break, when I came back to college, I arrived at my new dorm excited to see my friends, and discovered that all of my friends from the sorority had moved into “the house” without letting me know their plans. Rather than feeling excluded at the time, I begged my parents to allow me to leave the dorm and move into “the house” as well. They agreed. Once settled in my new abode, I gradually allowed myself to see the real truth about the institution of which I had become a part. As a sister, I was part of a formal stratified system which included some and excluded many others. There were rules about behaving properly, including at three formal meals each day where we sat quietly and were served by the houseboys. Add to that the endless meetings which were governed by Roberts Rules of Order, further reinforcing the hierarchical stratification of our numbers. Hovering over our sisterhood was a small group of older women, den mothers of sorts who ensured this proper behavior. It was stifling, and this beautiful mansion began to feel like a prison.
young modern style dancer posing
My world outside was growing as I increasingly identified as a dancer, a creative soul who hung out with other artists who laughed freely, partook in group massage, and smoked weed. My best friend was a young gay man with a sharp eye and wit. Together we began to deconstruct the precious world of my sorority, finding absurdity in this bastion of the rich. As we absorbed the various social movements of the day, including a rising counterculture and a burgeoning civil rights movement, I had hopes that I could change the institution from within. I called for a meeting with the trustees of the sorority, and sitting in front of a small tribunal of the den mothers, I proposed that the sorority be transformed into a “collective”. Of course, they looked at me like the outcast that I was, their negative response confirming for me that this was a place where I – a Jew, an artist, a non-conformer – did not belong.
My parents gave me permission to move back into the dorm as long as I got a job to pay for my room and board. I got a job in a fast food joint, a precursor to McDonald’s, where you could get fired for pilfering one French fry. From the fancy sorority house, I moved into a simple dorm room – a double – which I shared with Cheryl, an African-American student from White Plains, New York, whose father was a psychiatrist and mother an accountant. My guess is that Cheryl didn’t have any say in the matter of my arrival, treating me cordially but with a cool distance. Each Sunday, my dancer friend and I would slip through the back door of “the house”, along with the houseboys, to pick up a delicious Sunday dinner – since my parents were still paying for the sorority through the semester. I was greeted by the lovely cook, who welcomed me with even more open arms now that I was no longer “in the fold”.
Over the few months that Cheryl and I shared a room, we developed a friendly-enough connection, but when the more radical “Harlem girls”, as they were called, came for a visit, Cheryl ignored me, and when I saw her outside of the room, she would not return my “hellos”. Eventually I moved out of the double and into a single room, and I’m sure my presence was not missed. I understood at the time that her lack of interest in me wasn’t personal, necessarily. This was a period in which black students on campus were building a movement of solidarity, separate from white people, even white roommates, and that this was an important moment of building confidence and connection amongst one another that didn’t include white women, even Jews who were rejected from Christian sororities. I remember feeling somewhat awed by the Harlem girls, who were beautiful and strong, and while Cheryl clearly came from a different class background from them, they all shared a special connection.
These were confusing times. I had gone from feeling like an outsider in the sorority because of my class and my Jewishness to being placed in the company of a young black woman who was an outsider, because of her race. Cheryl probably came from a “higher class” than me, but her racial background defined her in this predominantly white university setting, and the people she sought out for friendship were the Harlem girls, with whom she shared blackness, but not a class background.
In 1970, during my junior year, Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panther Party, came to campus to speak. By that time, my sorority days were far behind me, and I lined up with hundreds of students to get into a packed university chapel to hear him. I was blown away by his love of black people and his analysis of class-based hierarchies. I was struck by the power of celebrating one’s collective identity, as a way to build self-esteem, as a way to achieve solidarity with others, as a way to build a movement. Somehow, despite the fact that he was black and I am white, I felt that he was speaking to me, in his understanding of class divisions as well as racial divisions. I found myself a part of a group of white activists who supported the black power movement and Malcolm X., and felt that Martin Luther King was not radical enough. Of course now I see that the full spectrum of black leaders was necessary. But this was the early 1970s. My experience as a Jew who “passed” allowed me to understand tokenism, and my experience as a woman allowed me to better understand prejudice, being regarded as less than, not smart enough, not equal to…
As I read Ta–Nehisi Coates’ treatise to his son, I am reminded of the long and hard struggle of African-American people in this US of A. I reflect back on my earlier experience. We still live in a world of deep economic and social inequality and systemic racial injustice. I am appalled by some of the current insidious and frightening reactionary movements, fueled by politicians who take advantage of people – white people particularly – who are ignorant of possibilities and their own oppression. Sometimes I feel despairing, and yet there are places of light in the movement of people who are dedicated to social justice, people who fight for and support the current civil rights movement through Black Lives Matter, people who fight for survival on this planet through the climate change movement, people who fight for the rights of immigrants, following the line of so many people who have fought for acceptance in American society over hundreds of years, and people who continue to fight for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. I think back to my old roommate Cheryl and the Harlem girls and wonder what they are thinking and doing today.
 Ta–Nehisi Coates refers to his alma mater Howard University, an historically black university, as the Mecca.
The men in my family were easy sleepers. It wasn’t uncommon to see my father and his six brothers lie down on the floor after a big meal and just nod out. Of course, that left my aunts to clean up, after they had also cooked the meal, and I bet they could have used a nap too. At the time, I figured that taking a post-meal snooze was the “way things were” for the men in the family. But gradually, as I developed a feminist consciousness, I resented these lazy guys. As my age gradually crept up to where theirs were back then, I have begun to appreciate their supreme capacity to sleep just about anywhere, anytime. My father was also one of those people who could nod out for five minutes – taking a so-called “power nap” – only to emerge refreshed and able to fully re-enter the conversation when he awoke.
Later, when he was in his 90s, he began to experience serious insomnia, lying awake for hours and hours throughout the night, going crazy with boredom and frustration. While I sympathized with his dilemma at the time, it wasn’t until I experienced my own sustained insomnia – after a back injury – that I understood how horrible it is to not be able to sleep night after night. I discovered that sleep deprivation steals one’s energy, one’s optimism, and sometimes even one’s sanity. With increasing lack of sleep, the exhaustion compounds and the world becomes slightly, if not majorly, off-kilter.
Insomnia is a lot of things, which includes having a hard time getting to sleep, as well as waking up early and having a difficult time getting back to sleep. Not surprisingly, it isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. No, we in the so-called modern world didn’t invent it. Insomnia goes way, way back. The term “insomnia” first appeared in 1623, and means “want of sleep”. One of the biggest causes of insomnia, stress, is something that people have been struggling with for eons. It’s just the nature of stress that looks slightly different these days, compared to a few centuries ago. But if you think about it, there are a lot of similarities.
We’re stressed because we work hard or we don’t have enough work. We’re stressed because we live in a violent world that is unpredictable. We’re stressed if we experience social isolation or prejudice. We’re stressed when we don’t have enough to eat, and don’t know where the next meal is coming from. We’re stressed because our jobs are too demanding or not challenging enough. We’re stressed because we worry about paying our bills. We’re stressed because we don’t feel loved enough, or because we have tension with our partners or our friends. One might call these universal problems, and these stressers will vary based on your economic situation as well as your race, gender and sexual identity. And maybe a few centuries ago, we might have also worried about predators or major diseases that wiped out entire swaths of people. All of these stressors can lead to loss of sleep.
A lot of famous people are recorded as having suffered from insomnia. Sir Isaac Newton suffered from depression and had difficulty sleeping. Winston Churchill had two beds because if he couldn’t sleep in one, he would try the other. Thomas Edison, like my father, was a cat-napper, because he couldn’t sleep at night. Some insomniacs turned to drugs. Marcel Proust and Marilyn Monroe took barbiturates to help them sleep. English writer, Evelyn Waugh, took bromides to induce sleep. As we know, Michael Jackson died because of a lethal cocktail of medications to help him sleep, including propofal, used for sedation before surgeries, lorazepam, used for anxiety, and a host of other meds, including midazolam, diazepam, lidocaine and ephedrine. He was obviously so desperate to sleep that he was willing to try them all.
Author and columnist Arianna Huffington calls insomnia a “feminist issue”, and has written columns in Huffington Post lamenting her lack of sleep from jet lag. Another Huff Post columnist, Dora Levy Mossanen, calls insomnia a “smart, devious virus that mutates and changes form every season like the flu virus. Except that this tricky bugger is tuned to our circadian rhythm and is able to change and disguise itself at whim to confuse the heck out of us”. Mossanen does all the “right things”: She doesn’t drink caffeine, goes to bed at a decent hour, drinks hot milk before bedtime, takes warm baths, reads non-stimulating books, listens to guided meditation on her i-pod, and imagines serene seashores. And yet she says, “I toss and turn at the beginning of the night, counting backwards and forwards so many times that if my mind was prone to mathematics, I’d have solved all the mathematical problems of the world by now”.
For the most part, my insomnia has cleared, but every so often it rears its ugly head. While in the midst of a minor insomniac “relapse”, I asked my friends and colleagues for their insomnia narratives. I wanted to know how long their insomnia lasted, why they thought they were struggling with sleep; what they did when they were awake; how it affected them the next day. I learned that the main causes of insomnia are:
* Anxiety, the everyday kind like preparing to teach a class, and larger anxieties, like worrying about keeping a job;
* Depression, which impedes relaxation necessary to fall and stay asleep;
* Medications, because some meds like decongestants and pain meds keep us awake. Antihistamines might initially make us groggy, but they can cause excess urination which gets us up a lot during the night;
* Alcohol, which may make you more relaxed, but prevents deeper stages of sleep and can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night;
* Chronic pain, which is distracting and worrisome and can lead to anxiety, which prevents sleep;
* Medical conditions, like arthritis, cancer, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease, which are linked with insomnia;
* Poor sleep habits, like weird sleep schedules, or an uncomfortable sleep environment;
* “Learned insomnia” – which is worrying too much about not being able to sleep, which makes it hard to get to sleep; and
* Eating too much before sleeping or eating the wrong snack, which can give you heartburn and make it uncomfortable to fall sleep.
In response to my call for insomnia stories, only women replied. I know that isn’t because men don’t experience insomnia; but perhaps men don’t want to reveal their sleeping problems publicly, even though I promised confidentiality. (It’s not too late, for my male readers!)
One woman said, “You do realize you’ve opened the floodgates, yes? Amazing topic. Of course, I’m too sleep-deprived and deep into end-of-semester madness to respond right now! Maybe during my next bout of insomnia (perhaps tonite). ;-)”
Here are a few responses from other insomniacs:
One woman says, “Funny you should ask, as I am suffering from insomnia just now, maybe a week long bout this time, but by far not the longest ever. I wake up about 4am and cannot fall back asleep if my life depended on it. Not sure why I have such a hard time staying asleep, maybe it’s hormonal (menopause) or maybe it’s all the craziness at the office (new department chair, no office support as the old secretary retired, research lagging, …). Often I am not the only one awake, as my spouse is also a stressed-out insomniac. I typically try to fall back asleep, but if it doesn’t happen, I get up and read in the living room until I feel exhausted from being up at 4 am. What sometimes works is counting backwards from 100 in another language. Needless to say, the next day I feel a bit out of it, but nothing like the “zombieness” I did when my child used to wake me up. I am not desperate yet, but may try to find my melatonin from the previous bout to get me back on track. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t”.
Another woman says, “My insomnia stories are boring. I get up and clean the house, read, catch up and/or get ahead on my work. That makes me feel like I am not wasting my time trying to fall asleep. Usually that day I am racing, energetic and feel good about all I have accomplished. By that night I am crashing and I pay the next day in bodily aches/pain. Not very exciting…”
Another says, “I have had quite a few episodes of insomnia. There were times when I would go days or even a week without adequate sleep. I would either fall asleep and then wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to bed, or I would just simply stare at the ceiling until I finally fell asleep, only to wake up about every half an hour for the rest of the night. Either way, insomnia sucks! I eventually couldn’t take it any longer and sought medical help. Come to find out, I have general anxiety disorder and that was greatly affecting my sleep. Even now – I am on medication- I still have bouts of insomnia when I am highly stressed. My mind is constantly going, so when something important is coming up I find myself having trouble sleeping. In the middle of the night I have tried a number of things: read a book, go to the gym (thank you, 24 hour fitness), eat, watch TV, and try and go back to sleep. As a student, during the day I am pretty much reading, writing, researching, or preparing for a class I TA for.
“After a night of insomnia, I usually feel terrible the next day. Even if I am tired, I don’t try and nap because if I do, the likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep decreases. If I go a few days or even a week without sleep, my brain has pretty much checked out. I go through the motions but I don’t feel like I am really all there. Hopefully that makes sense. Insights? I would say that everyone is different and should try different things to help them sleep. I hate taking medicine, even when I am sick, so seeing a doctor was the last thing on my list. I tried doing yoga, eating better, not watching TV or reading at night…but nothing helped me. Being put on medication was a great relief because I sleep really well, for the most part”.
And finally, one of my neighbors says, “Sometimes I look out the window to see who else might be up in the neighborhood. I am tempted to text them or call and get together, maybe we should start an insomniac club”.
That sounds tempting… I suppose that one strategy I’m employing is writing this post. Maybe “outing myself” as an insomniac will help diffuse the potency of this insidious problem. If I were to characterize my current “brand” of insomnia, it’s “learned insomnia”, meaning that I begin to fall asleep and then just as I’m fading into a hazy fog, my brain says “you’re falling asleep”, at which point I’m awake! Luckily, the problem has lessened since I first put out the call for insomnia stories. May it fade away!
Tell me your insomnia story! What has helped you overcome your sleeplessness?