“Of all the Blake poems we read, the one that caught my attention was ‘The Little Black Guy.'”

Dear lord, where to begin?

We “read” perhaps eight of the more accessible Blake poems in the British Literature survey. I’m glad ONE of them caught this student’s attention. First of all, is this another example of the agency of inanimate objects? We do use the expression, and the idea, that something catches our attention; but now I come to look at it, I wonder what our attention is doing until it is caught, and what the “something” has to do to catch it.…

At any rate, Blake’s poem is “The Little Black Boy.” The first time I read this poem, I was perhaps twelve years old. I remember that even at that age I felt a heavily painful confusion of pity, religious joy, and horror. Here it is:

The Little Black Boy

By William Blake

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.
                           (source of this text: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172927)
Blake published this poem in 1789, when slavery was still legal in England and America. We see here a world where white is the “default” color, the color most related to God (the English child is “white as an angel”); and even though the force of God, like the force of the sun, is a heat that must be borne, only the blacks must learn to bear it. The boy’s mother comforts him in his beclouded labor that in heaven the cloud of color will vanish and his soul will skip like any lamb around the golden tents of God: that is, in heaven, color makes no difference. But then see how the boy translates his mother’s message: BOTH colors are clouds, and death frees both individuals. Still in heaven, though, the black boy serves the white, sheltering him from the heat of God until he, too, can bear God’s love. And when they stand side by side, the black boy says, he will stroke the “silver” hair of the white boy and “be like him.”

Most chilling is the last line: the white boy will love the black boy once the black boy is like him. White is still the default. And this happy reconciliation, this happy quasi-equality, is only what the little boy imagines; it was not in his mother’s promise, and it is perhaps not in God’s promise either. The “little English boy” is the one with the agency when it comes to loving.

We know Blake, though. We know the songs of children, in his hands, are often laden with irony, with condemnation of society, with the injustices inflicted by social, economic, and religious institutions on human lives and souls. Read the “chimney sweep” poems if you have any doubt. Blake himself is not offering this “comfort” to the little black boy; he is writing of the boy’s heart, hopes, and helplessness, and the mother’s comforting words and images are all she can offer to alleviate the injustices of his life. Blake does not approve of the world as it is.

Dare I hope these complex ideas in the poem, uttered in such deceptively simple lines, are what “caught” my student’s attention?

Alas, all goes out the window with the change of “boy” to “guy.” Talk about trivializing language, talk about dismissive language, talk about the off-handedness that seems to dismiss the poem, or the character, in the very act of singling it out for praise.

I can theorize that my student didn’t want to use the word “boy” in conjunction with “black,” perhaps having learned how demeaningly that word was applied to adult males, how offensive its use is still because of that. I have spoken with a few students over the years who said they didn’t know how to refer to a black male under the age of ten, since they knew they should never say “boy.” Were the same reluctance and confusion operating here? Yes, I tell myself, not really knowing.

There’s always the chance that the student couldn’t actually recall the poem’s title, or that he just prefers the word “guy.”

I like my theory better. Language is such a potent thing. We are right to be observant in its use.

Here is the ending of the poem, in Blake's own hand and with his own illustration. (source: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Blake_Little_Black_Boy.jpg)

Here is the ending of the poem, in Blake’s own hand and with his own illustration. (source: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Blake_Little_Black_Boy.jpg)

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

6 responses to ““Of all the Blake poems we read, the one that caught my attention was ‘The Little Black Guy.'”

  • David

    I confess that, given the chance, I would have dodged writing about that poem entirely. I get squeamish when cultural/historical context matters as much as it seems to here. Me, cowardly? Yup.

  • Sarah Kuriakos

    At the end it sounds to me like Blake is saying once the black boy is like the white boy–i.e. the “right” color, aka white–God and/or the white boy will love him. What a horrifying thought, that you have to be the “right” color in order to be lovable, especially considering that skin color is something over which the child has absolutely NO control!!

    Makes me feel really SAD!

    • RAB

      As I say above, I believe Blake is equally horrified with that idea, but acknowledges that it seems to be prevalent. If you read his chimney-sweep poems, and most of the poems about London in general, you will feel the same horror at the status quo, although it is most often implied by way of the images rather than stated.

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Hope the poem caught his soul as well as his attention (attention spans are so short these days)
    Blake was a visionary.

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