The superficial meaning of Blake’s poem, “The Little Black Boy”, is that the discriminated black boy, in the dominant white society that instituted slavery, can not play with the white children together, but through mother’s teaching gets the vision of equality and love in the future world and so overcomes the inequality in the real world. However, “‘The little black boy’ no doubt grew out of the literature of protest against the slave trade to which many poets contributed until British trade in slaves was abolished in 1810 and slavery itself in 1833. (Nurmi 59)
Therefore, the materials of this poem already have a tendency to critique the slavery society. William Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy” exposes the logical errors that are fundamental to slavery society. These errors can be seen through the boy’s separation of body and soul, the mother’s contradictory teachings about the black body, and the boy’s confusion about the conditions of love. Blake’s treatment of the little black boy’s perspective on Christianity and salvation may well be ironic, forming the basis for a more savage attack on religious and social hypocrisy
At first, through the boy’s saying before mother’s teaching, we can know he comes up close to the ‘experience’ world. The boy’s concern with the English child suggests that he has been exposed to white culture and that probably, given the vast transport of blacks to England and America, he has been sent to England. He has lived among the white children while being neglected and discriminated by them. Through the expression, ‘I am black, but O! my soul is white’, we can see the boy unknowingly has a racial prejudice and Christian recognition that a soul is superior to a body.
Dr. Constantine Cavarnos states in his book from p. 154 to p. 187 that “the rational soul of man has supernatural, infinite aspiration and the mastery of the soul over the body is proved by the obedience of the body. Therefore, a soul must be immortal. ” The boy feels physically inferior to his white counterpart and insists that though his exterior is black, inside his soul is as white (pure) as the angelic-looking English child. Christian promises that God the Father will pass just, equal, loving judgment on the soul after the death of the body. So, what about before the death of the body in real world?
Should the boy live without any hope in the real world before his death? However, Blake doesn’t agree with the difference and separation between a soul and a body. In another of Blake’s poems, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, Blake offers an alternative relation between a soul and a body: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses. ” (plate4) Like this, He denies the separation between a soul and body. The boy’s thought is nothing more than seeking consolation in a religious saying.
Blake wants to criticize that the religious message cannot be the effective solution for the problem about the inequal society and slavery. Secondly, the mother teaches the boy underneath a tree. She says to the boy that black body is the evidence which God loves them more than the white, but she doesn’t have respect for her black body and presents it as only ‘a cloud’ which will vanish soon or ‘a shady grove’ which they will come out from soon. Bloom notes that the “blackness has the providential aspect of a shady grove, and is therefore both trial and comfort.
The God of Innocence, when his love has been fully endured, will call mother and child out of their bodies, out from the grove, and into the golden tent of his heaven” (Bloom 49-50). Blake, it seems, is also implying that black people are black because they have less vision than white people. Though inferior, black people are nevertheless especially beloved by God because they protect those with greater visionary powers. But this is a difficult interpretation to accept. Not only does it legitimize slavery, which Blake hated, but it undervalues vision.
This contradictory teaching finally makes the boy be confused. Jerome states that the effect of her teaching on her son is evident. “The boy has failed to accept his own spiritual worth and has denied his divine energies; instead, he has internalized his inferiority to the English boy, as his final vision of heavenly ‘equality’ ironically evinces. ” (Jerome 16) The mother tries to relieve the current pain of the boy simply with the vision of equal life in the future world, not in the real world. Through this, Blake stresses that they need the real vision of equal life in order to abolish the slavery.
Finally, the boy believes that he can shade the weak English children because he bears the beams of God’s love. However, at the last line, he finally wants to be like the English children and then get a love from them. Because of mother’s contradictory teaching, he is confused that the primary condition of love is to be the white. Even if one uses the black boy’s logic, one has to admit that “be like him” is still not very sound reasoning. The boy has already stated that the “cloud will vanish. ” Too, his ability to bear more love than the English child supposes a sort of superiority.
Why, then, the persistent desire to “be like him”? Differences between the two children have supposedly vanished, but the black boy still feels inferior in one way or another. It reveals that he does not find any solution or hope for the equal world. At the last sentence of the poem, the use of the word ‘then’ reveals the persistence of the boy’s feelings of inferiority. “He [The little black boy] is glad that, as his mother’s arguments imply, he is God’s favorite, but only because the English child (who is white both inside and out, and who, one assumes, has not shown love for the black boy in the past) will learn to love him.
The mother has only partly reassured her son; he still has fears of his own inferiority. ” (Leader, 111) In other words, the child’s mother consoles the child with a vision of a better life to come, away from the prejudices and hardship of this life, and the child accepts this, encouraging him to a further vision of leading, rather than being led by, the little white English boy to God and Heaven. The mother’s teaching may itself be a form of ‘innocence’, and the boy’s vision of a Heaven, transcending the divisions of race, is certainly ‘innocent’.
The confusion of mother’s teaching causes the boy’s logical contradiction. “His orthodox religious training has conditioned him to conceive of dualisms which will be integrated only after death when body becomes spirit and human becomes divine. ” (Hinkel 43) When following the superficial meaning of the poem, “The Little Black Boy,” we can get the conclusion that the boy is likely to have hopeful vision. However, we must know it is only ‘the pathos of unfulfillable wish’ (Bloom 46). He wants to know where the inequality of the society comes.
Although it results from the oppression of the power of the white, the mother can not directly answer the boy’s question but try to relieve the current sufferings by showing the equal vision of a future world. Through it, a loving mother hopes will comfort her son who feels different from and unloved by the white English child. She tenderly and compassionately instructs her child to endure this life until his soul can be freed, though his bodily life will endure subjugation. Therefore, it is just about how to endure the sufferings but not about how to solve the problem.
Because the mother tries to solve the problem of a real world in the future world, her teaching cannot but make a logical contradiction. Using this boy and mother’s contradiction, Blake indirectly criticizes the slavery society. We can know more about the Blake’s thoughts from a picture of the plate. Our expectation is that the black boy has the happy and equal life in the future world, but in the second picture of the plate, it is seen too far from the equality or love that the boy hopes and learns.
The white child is welcomed by Christ but the black boy is still isolated behind the white child. This picture reveals the Blake’s critical thought that the equal vision in the future world is just an illusion and weak and contemporary consolation which becomes worthless when he goes into the ‘experience world. ‘ When we wake up from the illusion and try to build the equal world like utopia right here in the real world, it is the poet’s point that the dreams come true faster.
In this poem, we can see that, through the mother’s teaching, Blake comments that the conventional Christian doctrine contributes much in justifying the slavery. The society without oppression and extortion and filled with love and equality, this is the ‘Jerusalem’ that he wants to build. Because he has a dream to build utopia right here where and when he lives now not believing the future world, his poems naturally contain the innovative social criticism.