Racial issue in “the Little Black Boy”

In the poem “the Little Black boy”, Blake carefully chooses the speaker as a child. I think he does this so that when the boy asks questions, it is not considered rude because the little boy is asking the question without the intention of being racist but because he is just purely curious. The child wants to know why “his soul is white… like an English child’s” and yet his skin is so dark. Later on, his mother explains how God gave him dark skin to withstand the sun’s heat and to protect him and that his skin colour is nothing but a “cloud”. After a person dies, the darkness from the skin will be removed and the person’s skin will be white like a lamb’s, and everyone will live together, innocent and white. So technically he is saying how race doesn’t really matter because in the end everyone will just end up equal in the end. Hm ok so at this point I’m thinking that the speaker thinks the only way to be pure is if you have light skin. But during this time, the white community was more advanced and developed then that of a black community. And since Blake had the mindset that humans were happier and in general better in the state of nature, doesn’t that mean that Blake believes the white man was more corrupt? But even near the end of the poem, the boy who was once black but was uplifted from the “cloud” is still submissive to a white man. So, through all of this evidence and the poem, how do you think Blake is dealing with the issue of race and where does he stand in all of this?

2 thoughts on “Racial issue in “the Little Black Boy”

  1. Christina Hendricks

    Really interesting questions here! And great analysis of the poem. I, too, came to the same thoughts you did when reading the poem, at least at first: I thought he was saying that in the end, everyone’s skin will be white because the dark cloud will be lifted. But note that he says the little white boy also has a “cloud,” which I think is his skin as well. So I think it makes sense to say that in the end, after death I suppose, there will be no more clouds in the sense of no more distinctions based on things like skin colour. We will all be the same in God’s eyes (according to my reading of Blake’s point).

    Still, there is that troubling part where the black boy says he will shade the white boy until the latter can bear the sun’s heat and light (God’s heat and light). In one sense this can sound like the black boy is still nevertheless serving the white boy rather than acting as his equal. I wonder, though, if this could be a way for the boy to feel like he has an important purpose in life that is based on the colour of his skin, even though others think his skin colour makes him inferior. Maybe this is a way for him to think that he is not inferior, but somehow better, because he can stand the heat and light better? And that this can get him through the difficulties of this life where others treat him badly?

    At the end of the poem, it’s clear that the little black boy just wants to be loved by the little white boy. But this would make sense from the perspective of someone who is not loved due to their skin colour. That’s partly what was underlying my thought in class that maybe he’s lamenting how they have to wait until later to all be equal; wouldn’t it be better if the little white boy could love him now? The black boy wants love now, but has to wait until they’re equal, but this seems like kind of a complaint on his part… and then he will love me, but why not until then?

    On another note, can you activate the plugin that allows those who make comments to check a box to get an email in case there are any replies? When you’re logged into your dashboard of your blog site, go to “plugins” on the left menu, then find “subscribe to comments,” then click “activate” next to that. Thanks!

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  2. Cara Meyers

    Hi Sabrina,

    I thought that your interpretation of the poem was very cool (especially this whole “we all become white when we die” thing)–it was very different from how I had interpreted it. However, I do feel that your interpretation makes a lot of sense. So, in an attempt to answer the questions that you propose in this post, I will try to view the poem from the interpretation that you present here.

    Okay, I definitely feel like this poem is definitely not a “hate black people” poem. I mean, the speaker expresses the fact that black people can be as pure and good as a white person, as he says: “And I am black, but O! my soul is white,” (2). The speaker also mentions, in the last stanza of the poem, that he will “shade [the white boy] from the heat till he can bear, / To lean in joy upon our fathers knee” (25-26). Then, on the tenth plate, Blake depicts a black child standing behind a white child as the white boy talks to Jesus. So, from this, I gather that the poem is implying that it is impossible for a white person to truly be close to God, to bare the harsh light of His love, without the help of a black person. So, to me, this suggests that the black person–because the darkness of his skin gives him the ability to “bare the beams of love” (14)–is actually superior to the white person. After all, the black person can truly come to know God on his own, while the white person needs the help of the black person to do so. In my interpretation of the poem (which I was not planning on mentioning, but oh well…), I feel that the black person’s ability to withstand God’s harsh love also arises from the fact that the black person was treated rather inferior to the white person at the time. Thus, it is the black child who is truly pure and innocent, as he is taking all the ridicule and blame of the white person. Hence, the only way for the white person to truly come to know God and His love is for him to realize the harshness of his actions and allow the black person to come close to him. Blake also writes this poem from the perspective of black people. By doing this, I feel like he is attempting to see how a black child and his mother would view the world, something I feel that Blake does rather successfully. After all, the poem doesn’t seem to be derogatory towards black people in general; it seems, like you mentioned in your post, rather innocent, like a young black child just wanting to know why his black skin doesn’t reflect the purity of his white soul. So, the fact that Blake was able to write a non-hostile poem from the perspective of black people seems to be a rather progressive.

    Yet, Dr. Mota mentioned in lecture that the speaker’s views aren’t necessarily Blake’s. With the exception of plates 9 and 10, which accompany “The Little Black Boy” poem, none of the people illustrated in the tiles are black. They are all overwhelmingly white. So, maybe Blake isn’t as sympathetic towards black people as is expressed in “The Little Black Boy”? I don’t know. I would, honestly, like to think that Blake is a progressive thinker and that he feels that all people should be equal, regardless of their skin colour. I would like to think that Blake was being overly careful and, as a result, chose not to put black people in all his plates, in fear that doing so would bring more trouble than it would good. I mean, this could be another reason why Blake chooses to write the poem in the voice of a black child–so that the opinions expressed in the poem don’t necessarily have to be Blake’s views. Thus, if someone were to question the poem, Blake could reasonably state that he did not think any of those things, that it was the little black boy in the poem who thought those things. But, then again, as you mentioned before, the last two lines of the poem do seem to suggest that the black person is submissive to the white person, even once he dies and becomes white. However, when the black child says that he will “stand and stroke [he white boy’s] silver hair” (27), I don’t think that it necessarily means that the black boy is still trying to please the white boy in death. To me, the word “stroke” is an interesting choice. In general people don’t stroke other people. People stroke their dog or cat, or it is something that a mother does to calm a distressed child. Personally, if someone came up to me and started stroking my hair, I would not feel endeared towards them; I would be kind of creeped out. I would feel like they are trying to comfort me for some odd reason. Therefore, Blake’s decision to use the word “stroke” seems to imply that the black person is trying to calm the white person and, thus, the black person is actually above the white person. Yet, the last line does throw me off: “And be like him and he will then love me” (28). It seems as though all the black child wants is to be seen as a equal to the white child. And, in your interpretation of the poem, the only way for the black person to truly be equal to the white kid is for the black person to shed the “cloud” of his dark skin and become white. So, yeah….I don’t really know where Blake stands in all this.

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