In William Blake’s work, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, there is a smaller poem within lasting only 28 lines, but still somehow managed to make a global impression; this work is called The Little Black Boy. This poem made an impact in a variety of ways, some of which being its contribution to the romantic movement as simply a work of literature, another as pushing Christian morals and values, and even attacking societal views of slavery and racial inequality.
The basis of this story is that a young back child who has had to endure what many white boys would never even imagine, somehow finds comfort in his mother’s words of faith encouraging him to persevere and use his experience to help others. During this time the concept of a black boy helping a white boy with their faith, or anything for that matter, was not only unheard of, but radical to say the least. This implication as well as various other underlying meanings helped shape Blake’s work to be a valuable asset to not only the abolitionist movement, but society as a whole.
Blake although very passionate for the abolitionist movement, decided it was best to spread his opinions through his works rather than verbally. Christine Gallant agrees with this and elaborates in her work Blake’s Antislavery Designs for Songs of Innocence and of Experience, when she says “Blake was deeply affected by this general shift of public opinion during those years of increasing government persecution of radical dissent. His opposition to slavery was more radical than most of the abolitionists who had gone underground, but it is encoded in his works” (Gallant 124).
Blake to an extent disregarded society’s view of slavery and publicly made his beliefs visible for all to read. Although publishing his opinions, he also wrote those feelings in the form of poetry, which can be misinterpreted and taken out of context. Gallant also touches on this when saying “Although the texts may not seem to relate to abolitionist concerns or slave experience, their designs incorporate public icons alluding to colonial plantation slavery that were employed widely in the abolitionists’ public campaign of the 1780s” (Gallant 124).
In addition for the most part slaves, as well as some lower class white men, couldn’t read or weren’t literate enough to find the hidden meanings. This wasn’t necessarily a problem; rather he focused on a more educated audience, perhaps the slave owners or government officials themselves. Blake’s work focused heavily on the aspect of racial inequality and injustice, a very sensitive topic in his generation. David Marriott very keenly states in The Heat to Bear, that “Blake’s poem raises the concept of difference as an experience of mortality” (Marriott 201).
This implies that the slaves or black people in general had less experience in moral judgement, placing them below the whites. In Blake’s poem this is shown very clearly when the little boy says, “I am black, but O! my soul is white” (Blake 2). Although on the surface it may seem like Blake is showing a child’s exuberance to learn more and want to be pure, in reality as Gallant says, “Blake becomes yet another of the unintentionally racist abolitionists” (Gallant 126).
Even though Blake worked very hard to progress the abolitionist movement, what we consider equality today is very different from the 18th century. Nevertheless, Blake’s work still went on to make an impact in a variety of ways for the abolitionist movement. One of the ways he did this was in paving the way for other writers to openly write their opinions and beliefs for all to see without fear of humiliation or isolation. In The Little Black Boy, Blake uses multiple forms of dualism to help see the significant differences in the lives of slaves versus free whites.
Howard Hinkel points out the key forms of dualism in the poem in his work, From Pivotal Idea to Poetic Ideal: Blake’s Theory of Contraries and “The Little Black Boy. ” What Hinkel reported was, “The dualisms are obvious black and white, “southern wild” and England, light and dark, child and adult, earth and heaven, shade and heat, and innocence and experience. The most pernicious of these dualisms (which need ultimately to be seen as contraries) is the separation of body and soul.
Upon this assumed dualism depends the mother’s argument that her child’s sorrows are tolerable because they will pass with the body’s death and the soul’s ascension” (Hinkel 40). All of these were very intentionally placed by Blake and each has their own significant meaning. Black and white in addition to “southern wild” versus England clearly signifies the physical attributes of the different characters as well as their cultural heritage. Earth and heaven are a bit more complicated and will be discussed later, but innocence and experience touches again on the aspect of morality.
One of the two, in this case the white boy, has experience and therefore is moral, while the little black boy is innocent and lacks moral value. This innocence in its real form is exactly the opposite, Marriott concurs with statement when he says “The black boy can bear this heat, and is sunburned, because, the poem suggests, he is closer to God in both his natural innocence and historical suffering” (Marriott 201). Marriott argues that this innocence actually gives the little boy a closer relationship with God.
In this it also implies though that the black boy is made to endure more hardship or as Marriott continues to say, “blacks are, if one can put it like this, made to suffer and undergo cruel punishments because, as black, they are better able to bear God’s scorching heat” (Marriott 202). This again revolves back to Blake’s unintentional racial insensitivity. One last quote from Marriott that seems to explain exactly what might have been going through the minds of the slaves during this time of degradation.
This is probably why the poem has been so controversial in recent times—it seems to show black suffering as a necessary education in piety. The more innocent, or unknowing, the sufferer the better he or she can be understood that way, and so made hospitable to the view of blacks as docile and submissive” (Marriott 208). This view of slaves or even blacks as a whole is part of what led to the eventual contradicting doctrine that was being taught in the church. For slaves there were two forms of Christianity that existed, one where there was hope in Christ, and one that falsely justified their mistreatment and abuse.
The first of these two is what is shown directly in the poem. The little boy’s mother is seen as a very religiously sound woman who has infallible faith. From a positive point of view the mother is doing exactly what she should be doing as a parent, comforting her child, giving him hope for a better future. “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 noon day.
For when our souls have learned the heat to bear, The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice, Saying: ‘Come out from the grove, my love & care, And round the tent of God like lambs rejoice” (Blake 13-20). Other critics such as Norma Greco in her work Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” disagree saying that “The mother in Blake’s The Little Black Boy has been recognized as a victim of a repressive Christian doctrine that, having lived by, she transmits to her son.
Her belief particularly in a Christ who demands suffering and the denial of desire” (Greco 13). Greco believes that the boy’s mother is giving the child a false sense of hope in a God that requires one to first suffer to eventually find peace. This belief has become common in the 21st century; another critic Ali Gunes in her work The Deconstruction of the Cartesian Dichotomy of Black and White in William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” argues a point similar to that of Greco.
Gunes says, “The black boy’s mother, who, in fact, represents religious voice in Blake’s The Little Black Boy, seems very innocent and naive in her views and endeavors to soothe the disturbed feeling of her son by telling him the status of both black and white in the sight of God” (Gunes 150). Gunes too believes that religious comfort is idle and there is no use for it, as it only gives false hope. Although a possibility, Blake seemed very contrary to that opinion. Blake wrote under the pretense that there was hope for those being oppressed, and if it is through Christ, then so be it.
In addition, although being a Christian view, Blake ultimately strived for the equality that the mother so adamantly believed Christ gave. With this Blake was introducing the concept to those who may have been opposed, countering the false teaching of many churches in this time period preached. Lastly, Blake finished off his work with, “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” (Blake 25-28).
Blake makes a bold statement here by implying that the little black boy can “shade” the white boy until he can bear what the black boy has already gone though. This is controversial due to all previous implications that it was the English boy who was experienced. In this case he finished off saying that the black boy instead has more life experience or understanding, putting him in a position above the other, taking care of him regardless of previous distrust or mistreatment.
This is the ultimate goal for Blake, a world united with equality, where those who have experience regardless of race, can help their fellow brothers in need. In conclusion, William Blake’s publication of The Little Black Boy, as well as other poems, worked as a building block in the effort to further the abolitionist movement as well as society as a whole. Blake proposed that through tribulation there is always a silver lining, giving hope to the hopeless. Through this, the most unexpected people can make the most radical difference in the lives of those around them, in this case, a little black boy.
If society could grasp this ideal and continue to pursue equality not only under the law, but internally, changing their point of view; we would stop treating others unfairly. This may sound dramatic, but this was the ultimate goal of abolitionist writers and believers, to spread this message. All in all, William Blake’s The Little Black Boy went on to be one of the most famous works of not only abolitionist movement, but the romantic era as well, leaving a significant mark in history.