|Jack, the first Black Boy in Wales
The poem below is part of Blake’s cycle of poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, shewing the two contrary states of the human soul. To judge by an article by Lisa Kozlowski, The Little Black Boy is one of the most commented and yet least easy-to-understand works by William Blake. I recommend you read the article. Unfortunately, I have little idea of how the criticism progressed after 1995.
“Little Black Boys” were no strange thing in Britain in Blake’s time. In fact, a lovely pub in Caernarfon is called “The Black Boy” and is said to commemorate the first Negro on the Welsh shore. His name was Jack, he was brought from Africa to Wales in 18th c., eventually married a Welsh girl and fathered 7 children. A plaque on the wall narrates the story, and the guest house and pub are just a short walk away from the entrance to Caernarfon Castle.
|P. P. Rubens, Four studies for a head of a Negro
The first stanza of Blake’s poem, perhaps unintentionally, harks back to the 16-17th cc. discourse about whether or not native Americans or Negroes had had a soul. By Blake’s time, of course, the existence of soul was proved, and hence the poet indicates that, whatever the colour of skin, the soul is always white. And yet it is the white English child who certainly appears to possess a soul, whereas a black boy seems “bereaved of light”.
The idea is further explored in mother’s lines, where the colour of skin is called “a cloud”. Technically, whereas for a black boy and his black mother “a cloud” serves as “a shady grove”, it has a deeper meaning, too: it is a cloak that conceals the true, “white” substance of a person, his or her soul.
|Albrecht Durer, Head of a Negro (1508)
Still, the little English boy is not so well prepared “to bear the beams of love“, and our black boy plans to shield him until he learns “to lean in joy upon our Father’s knee“. The last two lines, however, unambiguously suggest that presently the little black boy is disliked by the English boy. His wish, therefore, is to get to that moment in Paradise when the two meet, and the English boy can see that both of them are “white”, and will then love the black boy.
I guess my question regarding the discussion of the poem would concern the “colour” of scholarship. If we propose that a grown-up “English boy” knows his cultural context and can place the poem in it, how about a grown-up “little Black boy”? What would be his agenda for analysing this poem of William Blake?
William Blake – The Little Black Boy (from Songs of Innocence)
|A Negro Minstrel (1720s), Erddig Hall, Wrexham
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
Whilst 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,
|Francis Williams, A Negro Scholar of Jamaica (1754)
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and the sunburnt 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 and 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 could 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.