Good and Bad in “The Little Black Boy”
William Blake’s collection of poems, Songs of Innocence, highlights both the positive and negative aspects of the trait of innocence. Many of the poems within the collection feature speakers who find comfort in religious teachings and experiences despite the lives of suffering and turmoil that they are forced to endure. One such poem, “The Little Black Boy,” features a young male speaker of African descent who learns about the system of racial classification from his mother. Many argue that the poem seems far removed from the rest of the Songs of Innocence due to its dealing with a mature subject—racism. Though “The Little Black Boy” wrestles with the heavy topic of racism, it earns its place in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence through its narrative structure and the speaker’s exhibition of traits that signify innocence—hopefulness, naivety, and ignorance.
The poem greatly utilizes its narrative structure to convey innocence. This fact is most evident through the poem’s speaker. No image conveys innocence more clearly than that of a young child who lacks knowledge and experience. He describes the matronly love shown to him by his mother stating, “And, sitting down before the heat of day, / She took me on her lap and kissed me” (Blake 6-7). This image shared by the speaker displays his young age through the close, nurturing relationship he shares with his mother. This relationship signals the speaker’s young age and continued dependence on his mother. He also recalls being “taught…underneath a tree” (Blake 5). The framing of a lesson taught by the child’s mother furthers the image of innocence through the child’s unquestioning faith in his mother’s knowledge. This image relates to other poems throughout the collection that portray a similar relationship between believers and the Christian God. Lastly the speaker’s ability to reach a concrete, although problematic, conclusion by the poem’s end points to a lack of experience. The speaker has yet to reach an age where he can conceptualize the possibility of uncertainty. Overall the poem’s narrative structure plays a major role in rationalizing the poem’s placement in this particular collection.
In addition to the poem’s narrative structure, the themes present throughout the text demonstrate the innocence that the poem portrays. For instance, the youthful speaker’s sense of hopefulness throughout the poem showcases his inexperience. In an effort to explain race and its cultural significance to her son and to provide him with a sense of peace while enduring the injustice that he will definitely face throughout his life as a racial other, his mother tells him of a God who “gives his light, and gives his heat away” so that the “flowers and trees and beasts and men receive / Comfort in morning joy in the noonday” (9-12). This explanation allows for the innocent young boy to feel a sense of comfort in knowing that someone cares for him while growing up in an environment that devalues racial minorities. Additionally, his mother explains that “we are put on earth a little space” (13). This statement allows the speaker to remain hopeful by allowing him to believe that his suffering on earth will be short lived and that he will have an eternal life in heaven without the hardships that he endures due to his race on earth. Later in the poem, the speaker refers to racial identity as a cloud (16). He resolves to learn “the heat to bear” in hopes that in the future “the cloud will vanish” (17-18). In other words, his innocence allows him to remain hopeful that someday he will able to live a life free from the constraints placed upon him due to his race. This sense of hopefulness provides the speaker with a sense of comfort and allows him to remain within the realm of innocence.
Along with the speaker’s hopefulness, his naivety further allows him to be seen as innocent. In the poem, the speaker reaches an understanding about his racial category and the influence it has on his life stating: “And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.” (15-16). These lines highlight the speaker’s naivety in regards to the racial system by allowing him to believe that it is a simple, insignificant fact of life. He fails to see the major impact that race plays in his life. Furthermore, the speaker makes plans for his afterlife: I’ll shade him [the English child] 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. (25-28) The little boy’s plan to serve the English child exemplifies his naivety in regards to racial relations. The speaker plans to remain subservient and inferior to his white counterpart even in the space where he stands to gain his freedom from this relationship. Instead of desiring his own personal autonomy and freedom, he longs for the love and approval of the English child. This innocent naivety could prove to be dangerous for the little black boy by causing him to accept his plight as a racial other and minimizing his will to question the arbitrary oppression bestowed upon him due to his racial identity.
The speaker’s naivety towards the implications of his race directly relates to poem’s portrayal of the speaker’s innocence through his ignorance to the injustice of the racial categorization. One of the first illustrations of the child’s ignorance occurs as the second stanza begins with an image of the speaker’s mother teaching him beneath the shade of a tree (5). This image illustrates the fact that the speaker is still in the process of learning about life. He remains ignorant of the many harsh realities of life as a racial other due to the fact that he has not come of age and gained the experience necessary to understand these issues. By the poem’s end, the speaker makes plans involving the English child to “shade him from the heat till he can bear” and “stand and stroke his silver hair” (25, 27). Even in the place where he reaches his freedom he plans to remain in a subservient role. He remains ignorant to the injustice of his arbitrary position of servitude. As in the case of his naivety, his ignorance will possibly eliminate any agency to seek equality within his earthly life.
While many question the placement of “The Little Black Boy” within Songs of Innocence, the poem showcases many of the traits of innocence that stand out throughout the collection. Through its youthful speaker’s unquestioning acceptance of his mother’s teachings the poem narrates the speaker’s hopefulness, naivety, and ignorance in regards to his likely bleak future as a person of African descent in the sixteenth century Western world. Although his mother’s well-intentioned lesson eases his worries and provides him with an incentive to endure his life within an oppressive environment, it will not free him for the implications of his racial identity. Despite the fact that the poem’s main topic—racism—is part of the world of experience, its understanding and rationalization through the mind of a youthful speaker allows it to fit well within Blake’s Songs of Innocence.
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