“The Little Black Boy” by William Blake: A Little Racist?

LittleBlackBoyContinuing through my copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the next poem up was “The Little Black Boy” (click here to read the poem online). I have to say, although I love Blake’s works, this one rubbed me the wrong way. I found it to be a little racist.

The poem opens with a black boy comparing himself to a white boy and basically saying that he is “bereav’d of light” because he is black, but that the white boy is angelic.

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.

This immediately turned me off and it was hard for me to shake my distaste as I read the rest of the poem. Even having the black boy say “but O! my soul is white” made it seem like, well, since there is some whiteness in there, the black boy is OK too. I personally find things like that to be offensive.

Now, granted, I have to consider the period in which Blake wrote this, and in defense of Blake, he was obviously trying to convey that in the eyes of the Divine, there is no difference between people based upon skin color. It is the spark of divine spirit within each of us that matters. I agree and I applaud him for expressing that at a time when not so many people were enlightened in that area. But still, it’s hard for me to read this poem today without seeing the racist slant, especially when he asserts that the black boy is really white inside. Ugh!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to ““The Little Black Boy” by William Blake: A Little Racist?

  1. Rikardou

    I agree, it sounds racist. The whole thing about the “color of the soul” sounds insane, and the comparison by inference of melanin content to the color of the soul makes as much sense as comparing “sole” and “soul.”

    • Stuff Jeff Reads

      Hi Rikardou! Thanks for your comment. I would venture to assert that white was a common metaphor for purity and goodness during the period that Blake was writing (late 1700’s). I think he was trying to express equality, but those ingrained prejudices are difficult to purge.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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