It takes a lot of work to defend rest. Tricia Hersey is a public health activist who sees rest as a way to free our-
selves, decolonize our lives, and let our planet heal. Her words are strong, imaginative, and refreshing. They
point the way to escape the culture of the endless grind.
Resting on and for the Earth
Interview By Brontë Valez
Photographs and Styling by Denisse Ariana Pérez
So many of us are worker bees, trapped in a capitalist 9-to-5 grind mindset that leaves us sleep-deprived, exhausted, and unable to imagine. Nap bishop Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry, sees rest as a radical act of resistance and decolonization—particularly for Black people, whose rest has been and continues to be disrupted by white supremacy. Hersey speaks with brontë velez, a founding member of Lead to Life, about how to envision a new way of living that centers rest and liberation.
You were the first person who came to my mind when Atmos reached out about this opportunity to talk about decolonizing, rest, and all these ideas around climate and environment—and really what capitalism is doing to the Earth. I think it’s so skipped over. Everything goes back to decolonizing in so many ways, but we skip over it for these quick tips. I always am trying to go back to the idea of decolonizing. This is a long, meticulous process, an unraveling for life.
I’ve been thinking about this concept of eschatology—the theology of the end times and of death and theology at the end of capitalism—which I think your scholarship and your practice is at the center of. You embody your theology through rest as a praxis. It’s not even just like you’re bringing theory; you’re bringing humor, you’re bringing memetics, you’re bringing culture. You’re bringing performance in ministry. I’m curious what you think our dreams have to do with climate collapse and what you think our dreams have to offer to this moment?
That’s such a great question because that is the center of the work: this idea around a secretive, a metaphorical-literal dream space. I have uplifted that from the beginnings, when I started the work. The work began with me deep, deep in ancestor reverence and ancestor communication. It started there along with the ancestors, reading the slave narratives, working in archives, looking at photos, and really deeply going in and out of literal dream states where I felt like I was communicating with my ancestors. I would wake up in this unconscious state—between that liminal space of being awake and being asleep—and be having visions of my grandmother and visions of cotton fields and people laying down.
When you’re an archivist and you’re working in archives, it can be very overwhelming. When I first started working in them, one of the main archivists who I was training under was telling me that there will be many times when you’ll need to get up and you may get overwhelmed by the fact that you’re touching and you’re engaging with these objects that are real objects that people have held. They hold energy. And I was like, “I’m waiting for that, I want that. Overwhelm me.” I was here in Georgia holding documents that were slips of paper that would have a sale price of bodies—of Black bodies—and it was $20. Reading the slave narratives, thinking about how they were literal human machines—20 hour days. Uncovering all of this really traumatic cultural trauma and then taking a nap with it. Laying down and really uplifting my grandmother.
What came to me is that our dream space has been stolen, that there has been a theft, a complete theft. What could have happened if our ancestors had a space to rest, if they were allowed to dream. They may have received downloads from their ancestors and from God to say, “Go right, not left, and you will be free. Do this and you won’t be in slavery anymore. The button to that thing is here.” You know? These downloads that could have been given to us. Could our freedom have come quicker? I’m thinking about Harriet Tubman and her prophetic dreams, of waking up and saying, “My people are free.”
I think when we miss out on that dream space, we’re literally missing out on very important information, very important downloads and knowledge that are going to be for our benefit. I really literally believe that our path to our liberation, to really getting to the next dimension, is in dreams. It’s there. The information is waiting for us. The ancestors are like, “I wish they would just stop for a minute and lay down because I got the word for them.” They’re looking at us like grind machines and saying, “If they would lay down for a moment, I’m ready to come in through that dream space, that ancestral liminal space. I got a word, but I can’t give it to them in this dimension.” You know? If rest is another dimension, which I think it is, I think the more we go there, the more we’re going to wake up. The information is there for us.
Wow. I have goosebumps all over my body. This is liberation.
People think it’s just some fuzzy little luxury wellness idea, and they literally are not understanding that when you go there, it’s a space of deep imagination, deep generative freedom for us. I believe that the powers-that-be don’t want us rested, they don’t want the Earth rested, they don’t want us as bees rested—because they know. They know that if those folk rest enough, they’re going to figure it all out. They’re going to figure it all out and overturn them and the entire system. Keep them numb, keep them zombie, keep them on the clock. Keep them in a machine state. Continue to degrade their divinity. Because once they know they’re divine, they will not deal with a lot of this shit. So, I think that when I say sleep helps you wake up—it does help you wake up to the fact of who the fuck you are. And they don’t want us to know that.
Now, we even have people who feel so guilty for resting. Now, you have people who are collaborating with corporations so that the corporations can offer rest for you. The revolution will not be given to us by corporations. You know what I’m saying? The revolution will not be televised, nor will it be a collaboration with a corporation. They got to go, too. You know what I’m saying?
These odd ways in which we think we’re going to get our freedom. These odd ways of colonizing our own selves, of being colonized so deeply. When we talk about decolonization, we have to look at ourselves and understand we’ve been trained under the same curriculum, so we are colonizers as well. I think the pandemic has shown me great grief, great evidence and observation that we are literally at critical mass—and that’s why I keep telling people, “This is not about a soft, fluffy idea around just laying down. This is not some little fun, little cute thing. This is literally life or death.” It’s the matter of whether or not we’re going to stop and listen and slow down and reclaim our bodies and reclaim the Earth and honor ourselves and honor the Earth. We’re only going to be able to do that by slowing down. Rest is really literally going to be the foundation to build this new world. If we don’t catch that, if we don’t get that—not just in a meme and not just retweeting some bullshit—if we don’t really catch that in our hearts and minds and spirits and in our souls, and start to meticulously see resting as a love practice that’s going to save our lives and save the world, we’re done. So, that’s why I’m so passionate about this work, because I see it from that lens of: It’s decolonizing us, and it’s going to be allowing the Earth to be free. It’s a global bond for humanity, resting is.
I’m going to be in conversation this week with a scholar, Tiffany King. It feels like a strong week to be in conversation with both you and her, because her book, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies has had me thinking and preparing for that interview about the “shoal.” And how, basically, Black people have been understood and have been historicized in relationship to water and these metaphors around liquid, the Atlantic, the lake. And native folks have been historicized in this relationship to land and to being displaced. So, she brings it to our relationship to the shoal, which is both land and water.
There’s this moment where she speaks about how the shoal would often be the last point before the enslaved folks were brought off to the boat or to be sold. The shoal was a site where, for a moment, the ancestors might have a moment to stand or wait. For some people, it may have been the last moment to rest your feet before you’re made to swim in shackles.
I believe rest is a form of resistance because it pushes back and disrupts capitalism and white supremacy. It is an active way of pushing back and disrupting these toxic systems. And it’s actually just pushing back and saying, “You can’t have me.” It’s a politics of refusal. It’s a politics of resistance. It really means something. It’s not a quick little hashtag or fun quote. This is life or death, and people need to see that. I do see this work as my life’s calling. I know my God and the ancestors have put this work there for me to be able to tap into. And I’m forever grateful if one person, if one Black person says, “You know what? I’m going to nap today and rest and not go do that.” If one Black person can begin the process, it’s going to be a pilgrimage. It’s not going to be a quick fix. It can begin as pilgrimage. Unraveling from the lies, from what they’ve been told about themselves, what they’ve been told about how much their worth is connected to what they do—if they can begin to unravel from that, I feel that my life has meaning. I feel that God and my ancestors are pleased.
I feel deeply that if one person can connect and say, “I’m off that train, I’m resting for my ancestors. I don’t care. I’m not going to be another tool for this capitalist system. I just won’t do it.” And that refusal, it makes space for others to join in and start this process. And so, I’m so grateful for that. So grateful for you.
Whatever that liberation looks like, it also means liberating the Earth from the pollutions and the poisons and things that we extract from it. And so, liberation to me is expansive. And I believe wholeheartedly that Black liberation is a balm for humanity. No one will be free until Black people are free. And so, we got to dig deep into the idea of humanity and what Black liberation has to offer the world. It is a message for our redemption. It is a message of resurrection, of a spiritual resurrection and, in a lot of ways, is a resurrection for the earth as well.
I believe rest is a form of resistance because it pushes back and disrupts capitalism and white supremacy.
When I was in Alaska in September, I learned about the Arctic ground squirrel that sleeps for a whole seven or eight months, which felt like your kind of hibernation.
When these little beings are asleep for that long, then their neurons and the connections between them are shrinking, but then their brains are repairing after all of that decay. They have these intense growth spurts that are exponentially generating neural links that didn’t exist before they were hibernating. But when I was in Alaska, it was hot as fuck, and they are supposed to go into hibernation in the fall. And I was wondering, What’s their relationship to hibernation right now when the weather and the atmosphere and capitalism and all of this extractive industry has changed the weather and it’s changed their rhythm? I’m curious, what does it mean to not only protect our own risks but protect the land that facilitates the possibility for us to rest and for these other beings to rest who are entangled with our health? What do the Arctic ground squirrel’s hibernation practices have to do with how we get free?
I need a picture of this squirrel in a frame to put it in my office! This is like the muse here. I really want to be inspired and engaged with this squirrel a little more because I feel that so deep—no one is talking about the sleep science and biologically what’s going on in our bodies when we don’t rest, in conjunction with how that affects our environment and our community and our culture and everyone around us. Our bodies are their own technology in that way. And so, when you ignore your body’s need to rest, you’re deeper and deeper into violence. And so, what does it mean to have an entire culture that is sleep deprived?
They’ve already claimed it as a crisis—a public health crisis—that we are so sleep deprived. So, you have a whole culture of millions and millions of people who are not getting adequate rest, which means that they’re not tapping into spirit. They’re not tapping into empathy. They’re not tapping into any type of care for their bodies. Their brains are eroding. They’re not healing from trauma. There’s a chemical that your brain is actually bathed in when you sleep. It’s in the book Why We Sleep by Dr. Matthew Walker—he’s a neuroscientist who’s been studying sleep for a long time. And I love this book because he talks about this chemical that your brain is literally bathed in when you’re going through a full REM sleep cycle. Your brain is bathed in this chemical, and it helps you to process trauma.
Sleep helps you to forget trauma. It helps you to process it and deal with trauma. So, when I think about the trauma of our bodies and the trauma that we are under every single day, and the fact that we aren’t resting and we aren’t sleeping—we’re really killing ourselves on a biological level. Cancer and high blood pressure and diabetes all come from sleeping less than six hours a day consistently. And we’re walking around with a bunch of people who are literally sleep deprived and not able to connect with who they are. That’s a dangerous thing to have people walking the Earth and not connecting with themselves, let alone with the Earth around them. Let alone with that tree or with the water or with what’s happening in their yard. They’re not in any way connected to what’s going on with the sky.
I believe also that our lack of resting has stolen our imagination and our ability to be inventive and subversive and to imagine and to have hope. And to me, that’s true oppression.
They’re just totally oblivious to the fact that this is a whole ecosystem happening within them and around them. I believe that’s why we have so much violence, so much racism, so much white supremacy, so much trauma. We’re constantly re-traumatizing ourselves and the Earth because, biologically, we’re in a state of pure sleep deprivation. I think it’s dangerous for ourselves, it’s dangerous for the Earth. And it leads to everything you’re seeing now. So, people think this is just about naps. One of our taglines is: “This is about more than naps.” I believe also that our lack of resting has stolen our imagination and our ability to be inventive and subversive and to imagine and to have hope. And to me, that’s true oppression. To me, once you have taken away a person’s ability to see their way out of a situation, to see a new way, to imagine a new world, to see something different, to invent, you pretty much have them. And I think we’re at that right now.
I have thousands of people in my inbox being like, “This sounds good and everything, but I got to work. I can’t even see how I can get 10 minutes to nap today.” If you can’t imagine how you could subversively and flexibly rest your eyes for 10 minutes, how could we ever imagine a world without police? How do we imagine a world without climate change? How do we imagine all these things where people can have justice and equality in a world where we weren’t killed by the police every day or shot in our sleep like Breonna Taylor? We can’t even imagine or get into the consciousness to be like, “You know what? I can close my eyes for 15 minutes. I can refuse. I can resist. I can say no. I can get off social media for two seconds. I can have a healthy boundary. I can refuse and resist and stop being a tool for grind culture.”
You can imagine it and do anything you want. We can imagine a new world. A new world is possible, but it’s not going to come from exhaustion.
Production and Casting Denisse Ariana Pérez,
Talent YMD, Opoku, Mooquidi, B4MBA
This interview was originally published by Atmos Magazine