By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Little Black Boy’ is a poem from William Blake’s 1789 volume Songs of Innocence. Before we proceed to an analysis of Blake’s poem, here’s a reminder of ‘The Little Black Boy’.
The Little Black Boy
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say.
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice.
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.
Thus did my mother say and kissed me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our father’s knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.
In summary, ‘The Little Black Boy’ is spoken by the African boy mentioned in the poem’s title. This ‘little black boy’ acknowledges that his skin is black whereas a white English child’s is white, but the black boy’s soul is white too: i.e., as spotless and pure as a white boy’s. The little black boy goes on to tell us about what his mother taught him underneath a tree: instructing her son to look on the rising sun in the east, she told him to think of the sun as a sign from God that he represents comfort. There follows an extended metaphor of ‘God = sun’, which William Blake uses ingeniously, linking it to the dark skin of the little black boy (which has been ‘sunburnt’ by God’s ‘beams of love’), and suggesting that African children find it harder to bear the ‘heat’ or strain of living, because they have it so much harder than white children. (Obviously this doesn’t bear too close scrutiny or analysis: black pigmentation in human skin evolved to make it easier to bear the heat of the sun. But figuratively, the image works.) The little black boy’s mother then tells him that, after death, the ‘cloud’ masking God (the sun) from our vision will be cleared away, and like frolicking lambs these children will be in Heaven, around God. Or, to borrow a line from the Bible, now they see through a glass, darkly; but after death, the little black boy will see God face-to-face.
Blake then plays on the black/white binary some more, developing the ‘cloud’ into two kinds: the black cloud (implying storms) and the white cloud (more suggestive of pleasant weather). The little black boy tells a little white boy that when they escape the mortal world and join God in Heaven, all will be well, and the little black boy will shade his white friend from the heat of God’s love, until the white child can bear it. The little black boy will then stroke the white child’s hair, and he will be like the white, so the white boy will love him.
It’s clearly important to bear in mind the context of ‘The Little Black Boy’. Slavery was still practised throughout the British Empire in 1789, and obviously the Transatlantic Slave Trade was still going, involving the uprooting and forced enslavement of millions of African people, who were then transported to the Americas and made to work for their white owners. Blake, a tireless critic of injustice and inequality, here stands up for the voiceless, much as he did in his other poems ‘The Chimney-Sweeper’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’ (in the latter case, the child is quite literally voiceless, in being an infant: from the Latin meaning ‘unable to speak).
One of the justifications for slavery, of course, was the notion that black people were inferior to white people, and this was often bolstered by Biblical ‘support’: black people were cursed, ‘sons of Ham’, and so on. The idea that Christianity was used to justify the subjugation of anyone not fortunate enough to have been born white is one of the pernicious ideologies Blake’s poem is seeking to question. If suffering brings one closer to God, then the little black boy is arguably more godly than his white peers. And yet this, too, can be a dangerous logic to follow, since in itself it can be viewed as a justification for the existing ideology (in other words, the suffering of black children is all right because it will be ‘better’ for them in the long run, in helping them to win their spot in Heaven). By exploring this vexed issue through the voice of an innocent little black boy (this poem is from Songs of Innocence, after all), Blake sidesteps any such judgments, instead exposing the issues and leaving the reader to ponder whether it is just that black children should suffer under slavery. In the last analysis, Blake’s poem is not as straightforward as it first seems: something we see in many of his most popular poems.
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The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.