Advice, Archives, Artists, Featured, Performance, Poetry, Testimony

Tricia Hersey, a testimony on liberation theology and rest as inheritance

I don’t have the words to introduce this conversation in the way that it requires and deserves. When we spoke back in August, artist Tricia Hersey was generous and relentless in her call to us, making it absolutely clear that at the heart of liberation is rest. With that in mind, how do I frame or contextualize the totality and service of her work? Given the expansiveness of her practice, which includes and extends far beyond and deep into the beloved Nap Ministry, how do I communicate how her work has offered a salve, an abrupt reawakening, and a thread that, if pulled, may lead to our individual and collective unbinding? Sparks fly, visions manifest organically, and energies shift on a molecular level in the space between her praxis as a transdisciplinary artist, activist, theologian, community healer, and creator of The Nap Ministry. How do you synthesize something like that when it contains enough seed and substance from which to generate the future we are bold enough to imagine?

I want to do right by our exchange. I want to talk about my own experience with rest, or the lack of it, due to the systems and circumstances I inherited. Then, I want to pull back and ask that we all take a moment to imagine new ways of living, a different and more nourishing daily life, that doesn’t have us bound to a clock, a grind, or an archaic definition of work, life, and living. I want to talk about the conversations I’ve had about what it feels like to crumble under the weight of what we’ve been taught or the institutions we’ve been forced into and resisted, but also how we still somehow remain intact simply because we know there’s another way that holds high the more embodied, potent, and ancestral progenitors of ‘self-care’ and ‘wellness.’ We’ve seen them in waves and glimpses. We can taste the sustenance they have for us. 

I want to talk about how it hit my bone marrow when Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote on Instagram days after Tricia and I spoke:

“Stress will make [B]lack bodies cyborgs and that’s exactly what slavery fashioned us into. Doesn’t seem right to have odds my people didn’t have just [to] be what my people fought becoming. 

…don’t trade your parts for cash. They never give you enough trade-in value.”

I want to quote Alice Walker who said, “You don’t always have to be doing something. You can just be, and that’s plenty.” I want to feel that, incarnate that idea, and believe it fully through the lenses of all of who I am—and make that belief strong enough to not be shaken daily, hourly.

Everything that Tricia has done, from her origin story to the latest mantra she whispered into the Twitterverse or Instaverse, conveys everything I want to say. So, I’m going to forgo poetics because we all need to get this word. 

Instead, and in honor of Tricia, I’m going to take this time to dream. Of new ways to live. More liberated and self-defined ways of making, contributing, and resting. I’m going to dream of how to learn, make, and model the pathways to this kind of living for everyone I know and love, and all of you.

So, as part of the Testimony series, I offer you this conversation between me and the artist, the truth-sayer, the Nap Bishop, a lighthouse in this storm—Tricia Hersey.


Tempestt Hazel: You have so many roles and do so many things. You’re the Nap Bishop, but also a theater and performance artist. You’re an activist. You describe yourself as a community healer, and you’ve studied public health. But I want to start with the theology piece. What made you decide to go into theology and how is that connected to your practices?

Tricia Hersey: I was born in the Black church. My dad was a minister and a pastor of a church my entire life. I also think it’s important to uplift the denomination, because the Black church is wide and massive—it is not a monolith. My church was Pentecostal, a denomination called the Church of God in Christ. A lot of times you’ll hear people say COGIC. It’s one of the largest and oldest Black denominations. It was started by enslaved Black people. It is a denomination that was created out of making a way out of no way. When those [who were] teaching white Christianity were giving us their religion, we took it and remixed it into something for ourselves. I think it’s important to know that. A lot of people gloss over that.

I think the Black church, particularly the denomination I was in, showed how the church is really at the center of creativity. Many amazing singers, dancers, artists, and creatives came out of the Black church. Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin—we can list the singers and artists who were raised in [this] laboratory of creativity.  It was a training ground for Black people and young people to learn music, art, poetry, and public speaking. 

And while the Black church and Christianity, in general, have a lot to be critiqued, I think the Black church is unique in that it’s one of the only institutions outside of slavery that we’ve had autonomy around, that we’ve owned, and that is still here. Growing up, I never saw a white person in my church. The church owned the building and they owned the land the church was on. They owned the publishing house that made the Sunday school books. I grew up seeing Black autonomy, ownership, and creativity outside of the white gaze—it’s the reason why I am who I am today. I saw Black people in charge all the time. I didn’t really start encountering white people and whiteness until I went to college.

It’s important to my practice as an artist that I grew up in the Pentecostal church, but also for my community organizing lens. My dad was an activist and used the church as a community hub. He would do Sunday school lessons in front of the liquor store. If they wouldn’t come to the church, then he would go to them. I saw examples of being inventive and having autonomy from a very early age.

When I went away to college at eighteen, I went to Eastern Illinois University at first, and was like, “I’m done. I’m not looking at another church!” I just wanted to be on my own. I got more into [different forms of] spirituality. I started to make my own way. But, you can’t really run from [the Black church]. You can take breaks, but it’s in you. 

Theology came to me later. I never would have called myself a church person or even a Christian when I decided to go to seminary school. In 2013 I moved to Atlanta from Chicago and knew I wanted to go back to graduate school. I was thinking that I’d go back for theater, writing, or performance art, but none of the programs in Atlanta moved me. So, I started going to all the open houses and looking up everything, and I ended up on Emory [University]’s website for their writing program. I ended up reading about the theology school and started to feel a pull and a call. I was so drawn by the concept of what theology could look like because growing up in the church I’d never even heard of the word theology. My dad only had a high school degree. He never went and got any theological education outside of what the church offered. You were a pastor or a preacher because God called you, not because you went to school and studied it. It’s really a more somatic and embodied calling on your life. So, I never really knew what theology was, but when I look back, my father was a Black liberation theologian. He was looking at the text through a Black lens and looking at the ideas of God in the world through a lens that was redemptive for those being oppressed. He was [a theologian] but just didn’t know it because he hadn’t had the privilege of going into higher education for it. 

So, I decided to go to the open house [for their divinity school] to get the free dinner and to listen to a lecture. The lecture was on the violence that occurs in the book of Psalms and the poetry of Psalms, and I was entranced! I really went because I had a calling on my life. I went because I didn’t know what it would become. I never wanted to be a pastor. I never wanted to be ordained in the church. 

I went to the Masters of Theological Studies program where you go to study something under theology, but also link it to other things. A lot of people who are in politics, human rights, or other things go into this program. I went and linked it to human rights and conflict transformation. 

I went to seminary as an artist. I was working as a puppeteer at a center for puppetry arts in Atlanta. I already had 20 years under my belt as a performance and theater artist and as a poet. They found me interesting and wanted to make space for someone like me to study and see what I could do in this program. I never knew what I would do with it. I just knew I wanted to study Black liberation, womanist theology, and to ground my work as an artist in something spiritual. I was interested in the intersection between creativity and spirituality, creativity as a spiritual practice, and [the idea of] being an artist as being part of [one’s] spirituality. 

Once I got to school, it opened up so many doors. But I had to pick some kind of lane [at the time] for what I wanted to do when I graduated since I didn’t want to be ordained. So, I started doing chaplaincy while I was in school. Chaplains work with people to help process their spiritual life. That’s always been interesting to me. 

Once I graduated, the Nap Ministry was born out of my experiments—and theology came out of the fact that I’m a preacher’s kid who was raised in the Black church and has always seen the Black church as a place of liberation—I’m blessed in that way. Though a lot of people have seen the Black church as a place of oppression and abuse, for me it was a liberating place to see Black people take their own spirituality and relationship to God into their own hands and remix it through a lens that looks like liberation.

Image: Three people sit in the middle of a grassy area, seated and reclined, leaning against one another, eyes closed. Photo from an ongoing photography project curated by Tricia Hersey. Photo by Charlie Watts.

Tempestt: As you were describing your upbringing, I think about my own relationship with Christianity. I grew up Baptist, but in my early twenties I ended up joining the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, which is another Black denomination that is rooted in an abolitionist history. Like your church, it is one that was created out of a need to remix other forms of Christianity in order to speak specifically to Black people and it forefronts the Black liberation theology that you mentioned. It felt very different from the Baptist churches that I grew up in—different in a way that felt good. There is a lot of activism and community care work that happens in AME Zion churches. I appreciate hearing your own story because it makes me reflect on my own spiritual work up to this point.

You gave great historical context, but I’m curious about how you are thinking about your own spirituality, the religions you’ve learned, and relationship to Christianity now? Do you now take parts of the multiple practices you’ve learned into your thinking and artistic practice currently?

Tricia: Yes, absolutely. I’m all of those things. Culturally, I’m Christian. From a Black church lens, I’m in the Black church. I know all the euphemisms. I know how the music sounds. It’s embodied in me—that culture is my culture. If someone gave me a tambourine, I would shake it around right now! [laughs] It’s just in me.

But at the same time, being a chaplain means you have to know all different kinds of religions. I studied Buddhism very deeply and was going to a Buddhist temple in Chicago when I was in my teens. I studied Islam deeply and spent time in Morocco, North Africa and learning Arabic. I’ve also studied Judaism. I love the Torah. In school, the Old Testament was my favorite class to take. Rastafarianism was another religion that I got really deep in. I loved the ideas of it. I’ve also studied spiritual new age movements. I feel like I’m blending them all, all the time. I see them all as having truth to them, and there is a truth in all of them. 

At the end of the day, I think all of these things are working to get us back to our full selves and back to who we are: divine human beings. That’s one of the central ideas of the Nap Ministry: you are not a machine, you are a divine human being. If you knew your divinity, you would not be grinding. You would not allow for grind culture. You wouldn’t allow yourself to miss sleep. If you saw yourself deeply as who you are, you would see the divinity that I see in all people and what drives the work of Nap Ministry. 

[The Nap Ministry is] for all, but it’s a global movement from a Black lens. People don’t get the brainwashing that happens in a Black and white world. [Race is] important, but at the same time we’re missing a lot of the nuance, humanity, and interconnectedness of it all. The idea that I’m not free until you’re free. Other cultures get that, but United States culture does not get the idea of community care and collective care. 

You see it now with the pandemic. People refuse to wear masks because it’s their own individual [desire] and they have to stand on their own. We really are killing each other because we can’t understand the sacrifice and the liberation that comes from looking at things in a communal way. So, I think I’m culturally Black church and Christian, but I see the beauty and divinity in all of them.

Image: A person dressed in all white is laying on a bed with a canopy, opened to reveal them sleeping. The bed is placed outdoors and surrounded by plants and buildings in the distance to the left. Photo from “A Resting Place” a Sound and Site Installation for Flux Projects, Atlanta, September 2019. Photo by Tabia Lisenbee-Parker.

Tempestt: I really love what you said about creativity being a spiritual practice. It’s important to think of it in that way. I’m always curious about how anyone who isn’t immersed in what we generally define as an artistic life or those who don’t refer to themselves as artists are making those connections. If someone has a spiritual practice and is able to think of creativity as a spiritual practice, then perhaps it adds new weight to that work, to artistic work, for them. Can you talk more about the concept of creativity as a spiritual practice.

Tricia: That’s so interesting because you almost have to pull the lens back a little more and ask the question, “What is creativity?” I think some of the most creative people wouldn’t call themselves artists. I think about my grandmother who was taking abandoned lots in Chicago and started growing gardens on them. She never talked to the City about it [officially]. The fact that she was doing that across acres—to me, that’s creative. To use your energy and your power, to take what’s in you, to mold that, and invent in a different way—that’s creative. I think Harriet Tubman was very creative. She probably wouldn’t call herself an artist, but to be so subversive and slick? To figure out the Underground Railroad and move people—that’s creative. So, I think the lens needs to be pulled back on what creativity is and what art is. Also, who can call themselves an artist? I think most Black people are creative. You have to be creative in a place that wants to see you dead. 

I think about the people doing hair in their house and the bootleg man. All of these people finding different ways to survive is creativity. And they would probably never say, “I’m an artist!” I taught poetry and performance to young people all over Chicago and they would always say, “I don’t know if I can write. I’m not an artist. I’m not creative…” And I would tell them, “Yes, you are. You’re Black and you live on the South Side of Chicago. You’re creative. You’re alive and you look good—your hair looks good, you’re doing it, you’re eating, dancing, and making a way…” 

At the heart of us as human beings, I believe that it’s our divinity to create and invent. In the seat of our creativity is spiritual practice. I think about someone creating a child and how creative and spiritual that is. To bring something into the world. To make something that wasn’t there, new. I think of both of my grandparents who were part of the Great Migration. One left from Mississippi and another from Louisiana and [they both] came to Chicago. That’s being an artist: millions of Black people migrating from all over and using their hope to see a new way. That’s where that imagination and creativity comes from. Our energy as spiritual creatures is to live, survive, connect, thrive, get to our highest self, and to remember. I don’t care if you haven’t gone to art school, written a book, or painted, you’re creative—especially if you’re a Black or marginalized person. 

Then, to take it even deeper, I think there’s divinity in us but we don’t see it because of these toxic systems that strip us from understanding who we are. Sleeps and naps help you to wake the fuck up. Because if you knew who you really were, you wouldn’t be putting up with half the stuff that they try to pull when it comes to white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, ableism—all of it. It wouldn’t be possible because you would [recognize that when you come into contact with any person], you’re eye to eye with someone who has divinity within them.

Tempestt: The idea, alone, of survival as a creative practice…

Tricia: That’s the key to this work. When I say people sometimes don’t understand the work, that’s what I’m talking about. They think it’s just one thing—and I love that. Being an artist and a performance artist, I love playing around, subverting, and being intentional about bringing people to one place [conceptually and mentally] and then taking them somewhere else. That’s the theater maker in me. 

But that’s why I named it the Nap Ministry and use this persona of the [Nap] Bishop. It’s so that people can come into this and think, “Oh, this is about soft, fluffy pillows, and I want to take a nap, I’m tired.” And I say, “come on in.” But then I start talking about white supremacy and capitalism, and burning down systems. I’m inspired by Maroons and Harriet Tubman. I’m inspired by Nat Turner and Black radicals. I think about my ancestors so much and they are the reason why I do this work. They are the ones I get energy from by thinking about the things that they were doing—their intergenerational wisdom and the fact that they were making babies and making music, creating jazz and cooking good food. They were doing so much.

In this day and age we think that we can’t even get a fifteen minute nap in throughout the day. Our ancestors were literally living in life or death [situations] and they were still making things possible. We need deprogramming. We’ve been brainwashed. 

When I first started putting things on social media, about a year or so after I started the Nap Ministry, I thought I’d use Instagram and social media as a de-brainwashing tool. In the beginning, I didn’t show who was [behind it]. I didn’t put up a picture [of myself] as the Bishop saying, “go lay down!” It has performative aspects to it which helps me to bring people in.

Image: Three people are seen laying on the found, heads on pillows, covered with blankets, and sleeping at the Community Rest School in Atlanta in February 2020. Photo from Wild Talk Stories & Strategies.

Tempestt: I want to go back to what you said about people needing to take a nap so that they can wake up. What you said about being subversive is such an important strategy. Could you talk more about how this approach helps further your work? I think about how activism and movement-building happens and how people tend to see it as confrontational—especially if you’re someone who the actions and demands are being directed towards. But your approach seeks to disarm people and then bring them to some of these ideas. I’m wondering about that as a strategy and how this approach has a different kind of impact and ability to bring awareness and understanding around the need to dismantle and address the histories of things like white supremacy and capitalism. 

Tricia: It is a strategy. People who pop onto Instagram and see my work, they tend to not see the intentionality of this [approach]. I was also trained as a community organizer starting when I was 20 years old. I’ve done direct actions, I’ve trained with organizing leaders. I’ve done a lot of work in Chicago around youth violence. Before I started Nap Ministry, I was training with an organization doing work around Black land and liberation. I was working with Black farmers. My father was very deep into Marcus Garvey and the Black Panthers. Community organizing was my first love. But a lot of that work had to be done underground. Social media has changed a lot of that. But I’m 46 years old, so I was trained in doing this before social media was even invented. I’m also inspired by our ancestors and how they did things underground and in the dark of the night. I’m inspired by how they found ways to subvert the system.

I do it this way because I think the best way to illuminate a point is to allow people to get there on their own. And you have to pair it with the concept of embodiment and praxis. People love to hear theory, and love to retweet, but at the end of the day, just go lay down! That’s all I’m saying! Literally, for real. Experience the beauty of that. Go close your eyes and rest your eyes, like my Grandma would do everyday of her life. Slow down. We sometimes talk and go so far into theory, theory, theory. But that’s the privileged view of academia and education. But just go lay down! When you lay down, you’re entering into a portal and this portal is going to allow you to invent and heal, get a word from your ancestors, and get back to the foundation so that we can invent a new world. You’ve been told that resting is lazy, but [you must] deprogram that and embody the practice.

People think Nap Ministry is just an IG page, but we have been curating events for people to lay down and sleep together since 2017. We’ve been rolling out yoga mats, blankets, and pillows, and curating spaces. We did over 50 events last year where people all over the country would rest and take real naps together. That’s the work, that’s the practice, and that’s what resistance looks like to me.

I use the page to let people know about it, but the page isn’t the work. The work is laying down and making space for others to lay down. It’s also looking at the ways that you align and support white supremacy. Naps won’t save you if you’re a racist or sexist. But naps might help you get to the thinking that’s going to help you dismantle and push back.

It’s been a hard and long process to get people to understand that this is a process. This is about more than naps, it’s about more than what you think it is. It’s about a full decolonizing of yourself. And you have to do a lot of things other than just take naps. But naps become the foundation that makes space for invention.

Tempestt: I think about theory and practice a lot, and the way that value systems are created around academia and theory. What you’re saying makes me think about the value of ancestral knowledge and how important that is as its own theory. Personally, I would like to hear people talk more about ancestral concepts and praxis and hold them at the same level, or an even higher level within academic arenas. I think about what Assata Shakur said: “I knew I didn’t want to be an intellectual, spending my life in books and libraries without knowing what the hell is going on in the streets. Theory without practice is just as incomplete as practice without theory. The two have to go together.”

But I want to ask you about the ancestral care work that you do. As someone who advocates for archives, the urgent need to care for my own family archives has been weighing heavily on me lately. It’s incredible that you’ve made it part of your practice to think deeply about them. So, can you talk about the ancestral care work that you do?

Tricia: The Nap Ministry started because I wanted to communicate with my ancestors via sleep. I was at Emory University and one of my graduate student jobs was as a processor in the archives, in the African American collections. I was an assistant to the main archivist who was an amazing Black woman. When I moved to Atlanta, I didn’t know what school I would go to but three years before going there I was in their archives almost everyday, going through the Marcus Garvey collection and Josephine Baker’s boxes. So, when I applied to school, I needed a job and came across this job as a processor to work for three years on a project about Black women intellectuals and artists. 

I needed to be in there, touching these documents. I was studying cultural trauma and womanism at the time, and I was doing a paper on Jim Crow survivors and how trauma was stored in their bodies. So, I was in the archives everyday reading documents. I was able to see the actual documents from the people who owned our ancestors—notebooks where they were writing the prices of people and animals, handwritten “inventory” lists. Emory has a collection around plantation history, southern history, and slave history. I started to become obsessed with the micro details of their lives. I wanted to know small things like what it was like being pregnant during that time. Would they still work? What time did they wake up or eat? When did they stop? How hot was it when they were out in the fields? When it got dark, how did they see the path to get home? What is the growing season of cotton? What does 500 pounds of cotton look like?

From those details I learned that they were human machines. They were working 20 hours a day. Women were giving birth, then the midwife came to take the baby and the mother returned to work the same day. That shook me to my core, being a mother and having given birth. I could barely lift my head up [after I gave birth]. 

The details that people usually gloss over became important to me. They haunted me. But what would [my ancestors] have experienced or done if they were allowed a space to rest? 

At that same time [I was in the archives], I was resting. I was overworked and traumatized by being at this university and being a Black person in America and in the South. So, at the time, I was resting and sleeping, and had given up on school. But that’s when I saw so many magical things happening. I started making connections that I couldn’t have made [otherwise]. I was taking tests and couldn’t even remember what I was writing. I was so much in a sleep zone that I was falling asleep reading books and dreaming about my ancestors. It was a very spiritual, somatic, and embodied experience that led me to rest. I wanted to rest for them. This was reparations. How could I rest in this dimension for the rest that they couldn’t get when they were alive? I know that they’re just in another dimension, so they can get energy from what I’m doing now, just as I can gain energy from what they were doing then. There’s a reciprocal energy that’s exchanged when we do ancestral work and understand what they need or want to be remembered. 

I had a quote in a poem that I wrote:

Someone must rest for you.
I will rest for you. 

We will be resurrected together in my dreams.

Because they were human machines and couldn’t rest, I’ll do that now and give it to them in this dimension. 

When I started the Nap Ministry, I thought it was going to be a one night only, one-woman show, called Transfiguration. It was kind of like my thesis, at the end of my studies. I was going to present everything I’d learned about the commodification of bodies through the films, videos, and documents I found while searching the archives. I read from slave narratives, laying on a bed. And the audience rested with me. People were waking up crying and telling me that they had never slept like that in their life. People started asking when the next one was. Then, it just kept growing and growing. I never imagined that the Nap Ministry would become what it is. It started as a curious Black woman artist who wanted to experiment and give something to my ancestors.

Tempestt: I know firsthand the energy that’s in archival materials, so I understand what it’s like to go through hundreds of boxes, and the discovery process.

Tricia: I was the first person opening these boxes as they were being dropped off from people’s estates. I was doing first sorts. And I would sometimes be crying, and one of the ladies who hired me explained that sometimes people get so overwhelmed that they have to leave. And I felt that, especially when I went deep in. To see, touch, and hold. To be close to these things was a spiritual experience. I was dreaming about them, they were speaking to me. 

So, the Nap Ministry really started with me digging in boxes and experimenting with what rest could look like in a communal way. And [it started] because I was so angry about what capitalism did to my ancestors’ bodies and how it stole their dreamspace. There are so many things that capitalism has stolen, and [one of them is] our dreamspace which is where our power lies. If we had that, would we have been able to escape more often? 

I’m actually subverting people to come and get this healing. The spirit is there, the energy is there, the ancestors are here. They just want to be rested. 

Tempestt: I appreciate you speaking on the micro histories and the details. One thing that concerns me is the way in which we tend to lose those details as we work to make stories and information more digestible, whether that’s making it shorter in form, making it into a summary, or turning it into a Tweet or quotable. I’m always thinking about what is erased when we do that? Also, when you read the words, “500 pounds of cotton,” they’re just words and you can gloss over it…

Tricia: …but to see that…

Tempestt: …and to feel it? That hits differently. We hear about the impact of slavery and breaking apart families. We hear and read the ways reports, journalism, and people generalize and summarize stories of those who have experienced and continue to experience daily trauma and harm. But when you read the first-person accounts of someone having to give birth and return to work hours later, it does something to you. And I don’t think we often get those details, which, in many ways, allows for the perpetuation of the things you spoke about before and people’s inability to make connections between things like rest and white supremacy. 

But when you know those details, and how they are infused throughout history and generations, it becomes undeniable. Without those details, it’s easy to erase and gloss over it. That’s what archives do for me. They give gravity to everything that I don’t think we get in the translated versions of history that we’re given. 

Tricia: We’re not given it at all. And we haven’t connected the dots around sleep deprivation as a social justice issue. When I first started saying that in 2013 and 2014, people would laugh at me and say that it made no sense. They would talk about how they love to grind and would get angry. That shows how we’ve glossed over the truth of what is happening. When you’re exhausted, you’re also numb. If you study the science of sleep deprivation and what it does to the body and the brain, it’s doing a lot on a biological level.

When I think of people who carry hate within them, or racism and white supremacy, I see those things as a spiritual deficiency. Rest can really help people work through that, which is why it’s also important for white folks to be resting, too. From a spiritual lens, they too need to be sleeping. And if you don’t believe that then we’re going to keep getting white people calling police, like the Karens. They’re fucked up, too. They are toxic to the core. And though their rest experience and journey is different than ours, at the end of the day, it’s still rest. And we all need to decolonize ourselves.

Black people are resting and disrupting capitalism for very intense and heavy reasons. And white people, and people who are non-Black, need to rest for different reasons. This is not a Black/white thing. I have rest events virtually in London and Ireland, and an interview with an Australian newspaper next week. Everyone is feeling the colonization on them, and feeling how capitalism is killing them, and literally working until they die and into exhaustion. It’s literally in this entire world. 

Have you noticed that social media has kicked up? It has become a Black/white thing, especially since the uprisings. It’s become a place where either you’re with Black people or you’re not. But it’s making us miss the nuance of what this is all about. It’s attempting to make things simple when they’re in no way simple. How could white supremacy be simple? But it’s caused people to be afraid and think that things aren’t for them [when it doesn’t say that explicitly]. If it’s about liberation, it’s for you! Why don’t all humans think they need to be liberated to some level? Social media has created a concept of fast-paced discourse in one tweet. But no, you’re going to have to go and read books. It may take you years to really understand. You’re going to have to embody some things. That’s why I started the Rest School, because I wanted to slowly take people through a curriculum and build community so that people can learn and grow together. A deep and meticulous love practice.

Image: Photo shows several people in an open and warmly lit room, laying on the ground, pillows, and cushions arranged across the room in front of a colorful, illustrated wall mural. The photo is from the Nap Ministry’s very first Collective Napping Experience in Atlanta, May 2017. Photo by Brian Harrison.

Tempestt: Speaking of community, I’ve been thinking a lot about organizers and those doing movement-building work and protesting right now. And I’ve been thinking about how we care for ourselves and care for community, and the times when those two things potentially come into conflict with one another, especially when there’s an even more increased demand for us to do things for one another, for community, and collectively. There’s always the risk of us being pushed to exhaustion in that work, because it’s ongoing and the fight is so huge. So, rest, especially in movement work, is hard. Do you have advice for anyone who is struggling to find time and space to keep themselves nourished and rested, especially right now during a heightened time of crisis?

Tricia: I work with a lot of organizers to help them see rest, sleeping, and daydreaming as a core part of their strategy, and not as an afterthought for once you’ve burnt out. It has to be a main part of the movement strategy from the beginning. It can’t be something you do after everyone has worked an 80 hour week and have high blood pressure and are having a mental health breakdown. You have to have it as part of the strategy from the beginning.

Black Lives Matter has been speaking about this since the beginning. And Toni Morrison has been speaking about the concept of tapping into the work that our ancestors have already done before us. Movement work is spiritual work. And if we understood that then we would see that we don’t have to work 80 hours. What were your ancestors doing before in order to gain liberation? We can tap into that work and use it to fortify us now. We can gain strength and energy from it. 

And things are happening behind the scenes, things we can’t even see, [in order] to move things forward. When I was looking at some of the [footage and reporting] on the George Floyd protests, I saw a few things and thought to myself, “oh, the ancestors were involved in that.” Instances of police launching tear gas and the wind blowing it away from the protestors, or when you hear how the spread of COVID-19 didn’t increase as a result of the protests and people coming together—[ancestors were involved in that].

I want people to understand that you don’t have to do it all. Like Audre Lorde said, you can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools and what they taught you. You won’t be able to dismantle oppression using oppression, capitalist ideas, or grind culture. Grind culture is quick-paced, fast, gotta do it now, quantity over quality, scarcity over abundance, and “if I don’t do it, nobody’s gonna do it.” That only allows you to continue to abuse yourself. But, [we need to shift our thinking to know that] if we don’t do it, then it’s going to get done because it’s probably already been done! Just because you don’t see it and you haven’t done it doesn’t mean that it isn’t here. For centuries, people have been fighting oppression, and we know things have always been getting done because we’re still alive. The fact that we’re still alive tells you that [work is getting done]. Ancestral wisdom and intergenerational wisdom shows you that.

Black people [in the United States] have been trained by white supremacist culture. You don’t have to work like a dog to get to the end result. You should work towards your calling but you can work within alignment. You can be balanced. When you’re resting and sleeping, you get some of your best ideas for the next move you have to make.

People think resting and sleeping is taking away from the movement when it’s actually fortifying it. You’re able to be more magnetic. Your brain is able to produce at genius levels. You’re able to come up with new ideas and see things that you can’t see when you’re exhausted. It’s actually really dangerous for people doing activist community work to not rest and do this work with an exhausted mind. You end up making bad decisions and you can’t see the [long game]. You’re not able to tap in and be in community in order to come up with an interconnected idea.

People think that movement work is simply legislation and politics. But there’s also a spiritual dimension to this. Hate and the spiritual dimensions of white supremacy are moving on energetic levels and some people are missing it because they’re using the same culture of grind culture, which is to not sleep, stay up, work 80 hours. If they’re sick, they just push through it and ignore their body. So, how can you use those violent and oppressive tactics to liberate? Make it make sense?

You can’t get something beautiful and liberative by using disgusting, violent tactics. We’ve got to look at restoring, imagining, and building from a rested state. Rest is part of the job, part of the duty. You may take a nap and [during that nap] the ancestors will show you how to fix it all, but you don’t lay down enough. You could get a word in your dreams.

From a biological and neuroscience level, sleep science tells us that when you’re resting, the brain is allowing you to connect with new information. People who are learning new things, the more they sleep, the greater their ability to integrate and process that information. Even if no one wanted to go with me on the concepts of spirituality, social justice, and racial justice, and if you just wanted to go off of basic sleep science [about inadequate rest], you would never not rest. It wouldn’t even be an option.

Tempestt: Yes, we need to hear all of this as many times as we possibly can! Now, what are some of the biggest misconceptions or misunderstandings people have around your work? 

Tricia: They think the work is social media. But if all the social medias shut down today, I would still be doing this work. Social media is a tool to get the word out, but it’s just the first step. When we were doing events before COVID-19, people would come to our events and we were able to gather more. We were doing lectures across the country, teaching intense two or three hour workshops, holding writing workshops, and creating collective napping experiences. And installing large scale installation art I was doing rest coaching, like a one-on-one life coach, and coaching people around spirituality and rest. So, the work is not the IG page.

But I love it because people have come to me through that page and told me that it’s changed their life. I’ve had people in my DM telling me things like, “I found out that I have cancer today, and instead of telling my family right away, I took a nap and now I can face them.” Or they’ll say, “I quit my job today, I’d been following your page and I’m now tired of grinding.” So, the page is a beautiful thing because it allows me to connect with people I wouldn’t have connected to otherwise. And it’s allowing massive ideas to reach people I may have never met. A lot of therapists use the page for their clients. I see the beauty of spreading a message quickly, but that can turn bad.

I’m committed to education. I’m writing a book right now and I’m developing an interactive website with a lot of information about the theories. I’m committed to continuing to preach the message that this is about more than naps and social media. It’s really a collective, global political movement. 

People also think I’m a content creator or influencer. But I’m 20 years into the game as an organizer, activist, poet, writer, and have trained in and studied this liberation lens [that I use]. 

Also, people sometimes don’t think that I created this theory. Social media is infamous for stealing the intellectual work of Black people. Folks love to not credit my work and sometimes even my direct quotes. It seems like people will do anything to not cite my work and the work of so many Black women. I made this. It’s not based on yoga nidra, yoga, or anything else. This is me putting together ideas, experimenting, teaching, and training [for over 24 years]. I think they see me and think it’s just a pop-up thing, but I’m in it for the long run. When they are done talking about it, when they’ve stopped trying to copy my work, I’ll still be talking about it. When IG goes down, I’ll still be talking about it. I’ll still be talking about my ancestors and my grandmother Ora, who is my muse for reimagining what rest could look like. 

Tempestt: So, what does rest look like for you? How do you nourish yourself? 

Tricia: I have a deep rest practice. I rest and nap everyday and practice what I preach. I also read poetry all the time. I’m a poet and have been teaching and writing poetry for 25 years. I was in the MFA program at Chicago State University, studying at the Gwendolyn Brooks Writing Center and all of the beautiful writers there. I love poetry. I’ve been reading Ruth Forman’s Renaissance. I love Gwendolyn Brooks–she’s my poetry momma. I went to her junior high school in Harvey, Illinois and was part of the first graduating class. She would visit us all the time and come do assemblies with us. And she would say, “always carry a book and a notebook with you. Write all the time. Write what you see.”

Tempestt: That’s amazing.

Tricia: And since the pandemic hit, I’ve been going back to a lot of women’s theology. Like the book Womanist Theological Ethics, a reader edited by Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie Townes and Angela Sims. I’ve been studying around lament, grief, and mourning—and how rest supports all of that. And I take baths. If I ever did an offshoot of the Nap Ministry, it would be the bath ministry. [laughs] I don’t play. I’m serious about my baths and I love that as a somatic and body thing for me. I also love walks and just picked up birding—I’m a birder now. [laughs] This has all been helping to restore my mind.

Image: Zoom portrait of Tricia Hersey from a computer screen. Photo shows Tricia seated far from the screen, looking directly in the camera, wearing a gray off-the-shoulder sweater and a blue, yellow, and green head wrap. Within the screen and in the room next to her is a bookshelf, an artwork on the all above her, and some plants. Outside of the computer screen, you can see a plant and view outside a window in the background. Photo by Ireashia Bennett.

Tempestt: How does this work connect to your role as a mother and what you teach your son? How does he understand these ideas? 

Tricia: I know and believe that everything in [US] culture is working against rest. From the time you’re born—even before you’re born—you’re starting to process this culture that’s brainwashing you into ignoring your body and not rest. [You can see it in] the way the public school system is. They take out nap time and recess—anything liberative is taken out of the schools. Academia is the seed of grind culture, where it’s okay to stay up all night and then come take a test. The horrible habits they are teaching you are training your body to be a machine. And it starts at a very young age.

I started seeing this as a mother the moment [my son] started kindergarten, and as he got older and they made recess once a day and got rid of nap time. When he was in elementary school he had to get up at 6am because his bus came at 6:58am. The whole structure of the 8am to 5pm starts early. We’re doing this to our children. But I love working with young people and getting to them early because kids can see the possibilities. Older people who say they have never rested their whole life often can’t even see the possibility of rest. Kids can still see it.

My son is a great student. I’m lucky. He’s all about self-discovery and self-motivation. And he knows that you can be in the public school system and still critique it. He’s a critical learner and he knows a lot of [school culture] doesn’t make sense.

I believe in a different type of learning, and I believe that children learn in the way that the school system trains them to learn. But I believe that learning happens all the time. [My son knows] he can learn from just sitting and daydreaming. He can learn from resting. If he wakes up not feeling good, he can stay home. And he can’t stay up for homework. 

I’m really into making sure [my son] doesn’t have anxiety and that I teach him balance. When he was little my husband and I taught him the word chillaxing. Then, he created the word comfy-cozy, which means you have a blanket and a pillow, and you’re just relaxing. We’ve been very cognizant of letting him know that he can take his time and doesn’t have to grind, and that you are not what you produce. That’s a key thing that we need to teach young people. This culture, especially public schools and their testing, wants to [equate] production with worthiness. But you don’t have to produce anything to be worthy. You are already worthy.

He also helps out with the Nap Ministry. He helps me roll out mats and helps install along with my community of a few people who come out to help. He understands that his mom is out here making space for people to rest. It’s so important for him to see that. Other than the people you live with, when is the last time you saw other people sleeping? It’s such a vulnerable thing to see people in a resting state. It’s important for him to see this with adults. It’s also teaching him community care and that in order for us to be well we have to help one another. We have to pitch in and make space for one another. And you can’t be the Nap Bishop’s son out here grinding and not resting. You have to have rest as a goal for your life.

Tempestt: Speaking from my own experience when it comes to rest, it is something that I know I need to do, but sometimes there are barriers that keep me from actually getting there–whether internal and external barriers. Even giving myself permission to rest is sometimes a barrier because even though I know it’s a right of being human, it still feels like a privilege—especially in a time when privilege is something that is constantly examined. So the last question I want to ask you is for anyone who is reading this and taking in your words, but also dealing with barriers to taking those first steps. What advice would you give them to help us start removing the things that keep us from resting?

Tricia: We really have to deal with our trauma and uplift the fact that we have been traumatized in so many ways. Part of what that trauma has done is made us think that we don’t deserve anything. I often say that I’m trauma-informed meaning I know that it’s not any one person’s fault that you’re not resting. It’s not your fault that you’re caught up in grind culture, or that you were born here under a toxic system that sees you as a machine. None of that is your fault. But the good thing is that you can deprogram and decolonize from that. 

Then, just believe that you deserve rest. You don’t have to earn it. Spend some time journaling around that idea. Or do meditative mantras. Realize slowly and meticulously that you deserve rest. It isn’t something that you have to trick yourself into doing, but it’s part of your divine right as a human. But be easy on yourself and graceful with yourself. Offer yourself care and know it’s going to be a slow process. You’ve been under this system since you were born. Once you discover this work, it’s going to strike you in a way that may be very shocking. People often have to spend time and sit with the fact that they were part of grind culture. They had been disrespecting their bodies and themselves and participating in this violence and didn’t even realize it. We’ve been bamboozled. So, learning to slowly unfold and accept the hard pills we have to swallow gives people permission to start caring for themselves. That they can breathe and trust. 

And bring in more people around you who understand this. Black women, in particular, have been fed this superwoman narrative that says we can do it all. And we love to think that and feel good [about] that. But we’ve been tricked into believing that lie. You don’t have to do it alone and we will never be able to heal alone. 

Even our parents have been teaching us that you have to get up and work hard. That you’re lazy if you sleep past a certain time. Keep going! Go, go, go! Your teachers, your bosses, the church are all part of grind culture. Being told that rest is something that you can’t do is a form of violence. [Violence against Black people] is not just about things like police pulling us over and killing us. When you slowly begin to understand that, then you begin to have grace for yourself, you start being soft with yourself. You understand rest as your divine right as a human being.


Featured Image: Zoom portrait of Tricia Hersey from a computer screen. Photo shows Tricia seated, looking directly in the camera, wearing a gray off-the-shoulder sweater and a blue, yellow, and green head wrap. Within the screen, she is seated in front of a bookshelf and some plants. Outside of the computer screen, you can see a plant and view from a window in the background. Photo by Ireashia Bennett.



Tempestt Hazel is a curator, writer, artist advocate, and co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center. Find more of her work at tempestthazel.com.