Caroline Lee Hentz’s 1854 pro-slavery novel The Planter’s Northern Bride was one of the many responses to the sensational success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (published two years earlier). In Hentz’s narrative, social upheaval among the enslaved Black population is courted via nocturnal indoctrination. The protagonist, the titular planter Moreland, makes the mistake of hiring a northern preacher named Brainard to teach Christianity to the Black individuals he has enslaved. However, unknown to Moreland, Brainard is in fact an abolitionist who has been covertly mobilising the Black individuals into a rebellion. Moreland manages to quash the uprising in the nick of time and, after exchanging blows with Brainard, runs him off the plantation. In the novel’s “happy” ending, the reader is informed that
[t]he negroes were pardoned, as their ringleader was white, but put under a stricter discipline. Having so shamefully abused their religious privileges, they were restricted in their nightly meetings, which were no longer to be kept up beyond the ringing of the nine o’clock bell. The midnight hour, which was the scene of their unhallowed orgies, was constantly guarded, and no night passed without the scrutiny of the vigilant patrols within the walls of their cabins. (Loc 9005)
The Black population is punished by having their nocturnal privileges revoked and their night spaces heavily surveyed. The nine o’clock curfew marks the limit of their freedom, introducing a further boundary to their already carefully lineated existence. In even this utopian image of the plantation, one in which the enslaved are devoted to and idolise their master, a careful nocturnal policing must be present to protect the whites from their Black workers.
The narrative regarding nocturnal policing appears to have changed very little over the last hundred and fifty years, with the sickening news earlier this summer that curfews have been imposed across U.S. cities once again under the pretext of quelling civil disobedience following the murder of George Floyd (Nally). Curfews, as they have been repeatedly employed throughout U.S. history, from lantern laws through to sundown towns , are once again being used to scapegoat a population which is attempting to resist institutional violence. We are supposed to believe this move is to protect society when the reality is that Black populations are once again having their freedoms revoked, thus permitting the scrutiny of vigilant patrols, such as those who murdered Floyd.
In my research on night studies in American literature, the argument I always return to is that whoever controls the narrative of the night controls the narrative of the nation. It comes as no surprise that nineteenth-century U.S. literature such as The Planter’s Northern Bride was, like the newly emerging nation, preoccupied with nocturnal policing, shown through the rigid demands of laws regarding chattel slavery, Indian removals, coverture and women’s night work, and Jim Crow. Wealthy white America was (and is) continually trying to establish its claim that it alone deserves free reign in the night, while those it considers undesirable should be carefully controlled. The nineteenth-century literary night, in this way, becomes a battleground between social justice and white supremacy that has continued to this day. It is the space where racist authors demand that white characters should be permitted space and autonomy to conquer the continent, while characters of colour should be corralled, expelled, or killed under the pretext of keeping the white race “safe.” It is the space where authors of colour, in response, argue for their right to be American citizens: to be free, to be successful and self-made, and ultimately to survive.
While Indian-hating texts and pro-slavery novels are the clearest examples of such racist propaganda, anti-Black curfews are found throughout white literature, indicating how an audience should approach characters of colour. This examination of literary curfews expands beyond regulations requiring citizens to stay indoors or inside city walls after a certain hour to the hazier, often unspoken understandings regarding where characters of colour and poor characters can (or cannot) be seen or permitted in the dark when it is more difficult for those in charge to regulate their actions. In these cases, the narrative implicitly informs the reader who should and should not be permitted nocturnal movement.
In Fame and Fortune or, The Progress of Richard Hunter (1868), the second instalment in Horatio Alger’s Rags to Riches series of boys’ novels, the protagonist, Ragged Dick, is framed for robbery and forced to endure a night in prison. His white predilection for the comforts of western society demarcates him from his fellow inmate, an unnamed Black woman who does not notice the discomforts of the prison’s squalor and can fall asleep anywhere instantaneously.  This Black woman has “been arrested for drunkenness,” and while “swaying forward […] and nearly losing her balance” asks passing men, “Can’t you give me a few cents to buy some supper?” (Loc 1293). The Black woman, unlike Dick, is in an intoxicated condition without full control of her faculties. The Black female prisoner’s confines are not only justified in the face of her criminal activity—she can be dismissed immediately because the signifiers of her crime are external: in other words, she is Black—but also because the jail is seen as being there to protect the rest of society from her. This is shown when she lunges towards a white man in a threatening and sexually suggestive manner. Once again, white society must be protected from its Black population. In comparison, Dick’s ability to move up in the world is built upon the discernment of the self-made white man which refuses the same point of view to others. This, then, is why the Black woman is begging for her supper. Her perceived inability to recognise her degradation means that she, unlike the self-made man, will never attempt to climb out of it. There is therefore an implicit double standard regarding who has permission towards nocturnal movement. The social acceptance which permits Dick to choose his night-time activities makes this forced night in prison an outrageous act: an unjust punishment for an innocent man.
The white supremacist night is challenged by writers advocating social justice, particularly writers of colour such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Describing the “ill-luck” that attended him on his escape from a slave plantation, Douglass’ protagonist, Madison Washington, in his novel The Heroic Slave (1852), describes how
after being out a whole week, strange to say, I still found myself on my master’s grounds; the third night after being out, a season of clouds and rain set in, wholly preventing me from seeing the North Star, which I had trusted as my guide, not dreaming that clouds might intervene between us. (227)
The American night provides the Black character with the sort of challenges that all pioneering American men must overcome to become self-made: patrols, wild animals, extreme weather. This Black character is given agency and intelligence. Rather than participating in either the “unhallowed orgies” that Hentz fears or the drunken behaviour that Alger outlines, Madison Washington is established as an American hero who manages to navigate the American continent towards his freedom in the most dire circumstances.
Meanwhile, in the satirical final act of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Tom Sawyer complains, “There ain’t no watchman to be drugged—now there ought to be a watchman” (182). The fun of Tom and Huck’s rescue attempt of Jim is hampered by a lack of curfews: the watchman, a figure that elsewhere prevents individuals from exercising freedom of movement, is here highlighted as being an intrinsic (and necessary) component of American identity. The watchman is an obstacle required in order for the boys to become the type of hero that Madison Washington so elegantly embodies. Here Twain illustrates how white freedom exists not only in spite of but is built upon anti-Black curfews. As Toni Morrison observes in Playing in the Dark, “Jim’s slave status makes play and deferment possible—but it also dramatizes, in style and mode of narration, the connection between slavery and the achievement (in actual and imaginary terms) of freedom” (57). These curfews are not built to constrain white men or boys, such as Tom and Huck, but instead to facilitate their enjoyment and opportunities at the expense of Black lives.
The recent curfews sweeping across U.S. cities demonstrate how the same anti-Black propaganda that has been circulating for centuries is still informing the views of those in positions of power across the western world and being justified to quell rebellion, just as it always has. Amidst reporting of “looting” and “violence” in relation to the most recent curfew instigated in Kenosha, Wisconson, following the police shooting and paralysing of Jacob Blake, a lawsuit has been filed alleging that more than 150 peaceful protesters were arrested for violating curfew, but not a single pro-police demonstrator was arrested (Alonso).
As we prepare to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 visit to Ireland, we should recognise the political dimension of the American night, which Douglass believed could also be a powerful tool used to resist white tyranny. Discussing the importance of the underground railroad, he encouraged secrecy in his first narrative, published that same year, writing that the slaveholder should be kept “profoundly ignorant” of the methods of escape used by the enslaved: on the contrary, he should be “left to feel his way in the dark; […] let him feel that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an invisible agency” (101-2). Black Americans could gain freedoms by using the uncertainty of the night through a reversal of the usual pattern of surveillance: of ensuring that the white slaveowner fears that he is not in control of the narrative. For those of us across the Atlantic, we too can try to redirect the narrative: by reminding those convinced by mainstream media that these curfews were and are unjust, that nocturnal policing is not natural but is instead a pervasive tool of white tyranny, and that for too long nightfall itself has been used as justification for punitive measures against communities of colour.
 Simone Browne elaborates on the eighteenth century lantern laws that required people of colour to carry lanterns after dark in New York in Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness, and James W. Loewen discusses the communities that excluded non-white individuals after dark, which continued late into the twentieth century, in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.
 John Allen has identified that racist assumptions like these were made by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in Notes on Virginia (1788) that Black people have a “disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labor. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect must be disposed to sleep of course” (qtd. 34).
Alger, Horatio. Fame and Fortune or, The Progress of Richard Hunter. 1868. Kindle ed., Public Domain, 2012.
Allen, John. Homelessness in American Literature: Romanticism, and Testimony. Routledge, 2004.
Alonso, Melissa, Sara Sidner, and Eliott C. McLaughlin. “Kenosha protesters arrested for breaking curfew while police supporters were allowed to ‘roam,’ lawsuit says.” CNN, 2 Sept. 2020, edition.cnn.com/2020/09/02/us/kenosha-curfew-lawsuit-protests-jacob-blake/index.html.
Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke UP, 2015.
Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. 1852. Frederick Douglass: The Essential Writings, Verlag, 2017, pp. 222-43.
—. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845. Reprint, Belknap, 2009.
Hentz, Caroline Lee. The Planter’s Northern Bride. 1854. Kindle ed., Amazon Digital Services, 2012.
Loewen, James W. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. 2005. Kindle ed., New Press, 2018.
Nally, Alicia. “The curfews in place in US cities and states after the death of black man George Floyd.” ABC News, 2 June 2020, www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-02/what-curfews-are-in-place-in-the-us-after-george-floyd-death/12313140.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Vintage Books, 1993.
Twain, Mark. Huckleberry Finn. 1868. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, introduction by Andrew Sinclair, notes by Michael Lerner, Pan Books, 1968, pp. 199-447.