This post is adapted from an essay I wrote for a Liberty University English class.
In 1789, eighteen years before slavery was abolished in Great Britain, William Blake published the poetry collection Songs of Innocence, among which is the poem “Little Black Boy.” Blake condemned slavery, which was evidence of the rampant racial inequality of his time (“Blake and Wordsworth”). Interestingly, the same year that Blake published Songs of Innocence, the French stormed the Bastille, and the ideology of freedom initially upheld by the French revolutionaries was reflected in the goals of abolitionists, both American and British. Other materials were published that year, such as a description of a slave trade ship, a report on the slave trade, a speech about slavery by William Wilberforce in the House of Commons, and a former slave by the name of Olaudah Equiano published one of the first books by a black author (Wikipedia). Attitudes about race were changing for the better, leading to increased equality. In the 1960s, as in the US, there was more progress made towards racial equality. The UK passed the Race Relations Act in 1965, which was the first legislation addressing racial discrimination; in 1976 they passed new legislation with the same name, making racial discrimination illegal (EqualityHumanRights.com). William Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy” uses racial imagery to convey spiritual truth and oppose the slave trade.
The poem is as follows:
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 fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.
In this poem Blake writes from the perspective of a black slave boy in the southern U.S. to promote a biblical view of blacks as equal to whites. In line two, Blake states that the boy has a soul, despite the popular belief at the time that black people do not have souls (“Blake and Wordsworth”). For slave owners, claiming that black people did not have souls served as a justification of their owning slaves and treating them like animals, who are also believed to lack souls. American and British slave owners who believed the Bible is God’s word might have defended slavery by proof-texting a passage such as Ephesians 6:5, which tells slaves to obey their masters. Ephesians 6:5 defends slavery only if the literary and historical context is ignored; slaves in biblical times were often repaying a debt and were freed after their debt had been paid, unless they chose to remain the master’s slave. Blake insinuates throughout the poem that all people, regardless of skin color, are equal in their relationship to God (lines 3, 9-14, 17-20, 22-28). This is a biblical idea; as Galatians 3:28 (NIV) says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The black boy compares an English child to an angel because of his white skin, viewing himself as “bereav’d of light” (lines 3-4). It had been made clear to blacks that they were inferior to whites; it was ingrained in the culture and in their minds that they were lesser than whites, even when they were striving for equality. The culture, in this case, was wrong; all people are equal, because all are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). All people are the same in a fundamental aspect, making them all equal.
Equality in God’s sight is Blake’s focus in “Little Black Boy,” though equality and fair treatment from whites was also important considering blacks were slaves, both in Britain and America. In lines thirteen and fourteen, the black slave boy relates what his mother taught him: “And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the [sun] beams of love.” The sun seems to symbolize the trials men face on earth. This is reminiscent of James 1:2-4, which says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (NIV). It seems from the black boy’s hope that the English boy will one day love him that Blake saw a future day when whites would realize they were not superior to other races and equality would be gained. At the very least, the final lines emphasize that all of God’s children are equal in His sight, or, as a popular phrase among Christians puts it, “the ground is level at the cross.”
William Blake masterfully used racial imagery to teach his contemporaries about equality in Christ. It was surely not a popular message for slave owning Brits or Americans at the time, but it is a biblical one. The poem decries the prejudice inherent to racism and the slave trade and points readers to Christ. It was vital to the abolitionist movement that blacks be viewed and treated as equal to whites, and Blake communicated this well in “Little Black Boy.” Of course, racial equality did not stop there, and freedom for slaves was only the first step. A lot of progress has been made. Today on the internet there is an upsurge of racism, not towards “people of color,” generally, but towards whites. While some say things about “reverse racism isn’t real” or similar things, racism is any prejudice against someone because of their skin color or race. All people should be viewed as equal insofar as they are human regardless of race.
Equality Human Rights. “A History of Human Rights in Britain.” https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/what-are-human-rights/history-human-rights-britain
Liberty University. “Blake and Wordsworth.” (Video presentation.)
Liberty University. “Historical Context and Wollstonecraft.” (Video presentation.)
Wikipedia. “1789 in Great Britain.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1789_in_Great_Britain
William Blake. Songs of Innocence, “Little Black Boy.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43671/the-little-black-boy