Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” appears, on face, to be a kindly demonstration of how race doesn’t really matter since one day all Christians will be free from the “cloud” of skin color and equal in the eyes of God. However, upon further examination, the poem contains statements about race and how it affects both our mortal and immortal lives that do not quite jive with the idea that race is a temporary burden.
In the first stanza, the black child who is the narrator of the poem cries, “I am black but O! my soul is white” and “I am black as if bereav’d of light.” Blake immediately associates whiteness with goodness and innocence, and even if he is correct in asserting that outward skin color doesn’t matter in light of the state of a person’s soul, it is a rather hard judgment upon a small child to inform him that his skin color is associated with evil and judgment.
Blake continues to develop the idea of “light,” as the boy recounts his mother’s instructions: “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.” Here God is associated with heat, light, and the Sun – physical entities that all convey the presence of God to man. The mother instructs her child to “receive comfort” from the rising of the Sun (which is the verbal equal of Son, or Christ) when he is tiring from his work in the “noon day.” When we compare this stanza to the first, in which whiteness has been set up as the opposite of blackness’s being “bereav’d of light,” then light and white emerge as the same thing. In other words, the boy’s white masters become symbols of God. Thus he is to obey them and even rejoice in serving them, despite their enforcing difficult labor in the “noon day.” Moreover, the mother says, light (or whiteness) is a gift from God – which seems to imply that God has chosen to give the “gift” of whiteness to the boy’s masters and withhold it from him.
Blake continues: “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.” Though Blake seems to innocently connect warmth and light with God, this stanza supports the symbolism of the above paragraph, noting that the “beams of love” (the prosecutions of the white master) are to be borne, rather than joyfully received as they might be if they were from God. The mother argues that black skin and the heritage with which it is associated, “like a shady grove,” enable the little boy and others of his race to withstand their earthly trials and comforts him by telling him that their outward appearance “is but a cloud.”
Following his mother’s lead in anticipating the joy of eternal life, the boy contemplates what heaven will be like, discussing his position in relation to that of a white boy: “When I from black and he from white cloud free, / And round the tent of God like lambs we joy: / Ill 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.” The irony in this childlike contemplation is twofold. First, even in heaven, the black boy is subservient to the white, “shad[ing] him from the heat” that in this sense appears to stand for the heat of God. If the boy’s “white cloud” has not prepared him to stand in the presence of God, then how is it good or innocent or pure? Blake’s point is that yes, perhaps outward appearances are misleading – but that is because often the white man’s soul is the most corrupt. Second, Blake presents the futility of the black boy’s subservience throughout his life on earth and in heaven: it will never be good enough to earn the white boy’s acceptance. Even in heaven, where race is apparently nonexistent, the little boy suggests that he will be distinct from the white boy by the appearance of their souls. And even if the black boy’s is purer than that of the white, he will still be forced into a position of submissiveness to his former master. Though the black boy anticipates that “he will then love me,” why should his efforts in heaven gain any more acceptance than those he put forth upon earth? Contrary to the initial perception of Blake’s point here, his argument is that race is more than skin-deep and encompasses actions, beliefs, and behaviors that will not disappear upon the removal of skin color. Carried to its logical conclusion, Blake’s poem might urge a revolution of sorts, as his work usually does, though in this case it is one of the black slaves against their white suppressors. This is a prime example of the religious Blake rejecting the popular notions of his faith (that endurance and good work lead to a reward in heaven) in favor of supporting human actions to redeem the human condition.