Post by Frank Berger Post by Frank Berger
The Ormandy/Harrell Blake Songs, including "Little Black
I think I asked this once before - I can't figure out out
how to download from Buster's site.
Whether "Little Black Boy" is racist in any way depends on
you interpret the words.
The way I read them was that Blake is portraying "Blackness"
as a disability, not inherent, but because of white racism.
Perhaps they can be interpreted differently. I suppose
you'd have to ask Blake.
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
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,
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.
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 & 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 cloud free,
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.
This poem from Blake's 'Songs of Innocence" is only "racist" to people who casually assume that "black" and "white" mean, have always meant, and always will mean, what they meant in Alabama in 1950. And of course there's that current boo-word "English" - would anybody have cared about that US 'Vogue' cover of Kemala Harris if its editor hadn't been English?
In the Blake world, warmth, spontaneity, love, simplicity are good, and cold manipulation, repression and rationalism are bad. "Child" stands for an original freedom and innocence and spontaneity which will be repressed and corrupted by the repressive adult world, especially the world of the Industrial Revolution which was gathering pace in Blake's lifetime.
Cf the same poet's "Jerusalem" which became a second British National Anthem, because Parry didn't understand the implications of
"And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?".
Blake's lines are a rhetorical question, whose answer can only be "Good God, no".
Returning to the current poem, there's a skilfully ironic play on "white" and "black" throughout. The upshot is, that the black child, with his natural warmth and spontaneity, is a lot closer to God than the white child is, despite the fact that to many of Blake's contemporaries, "white" was the colour of good and black was the colour of evil.
But 'white' is also the colour of snow, pure but repressive and hence evil:
"Ah, sunflower weary of time,
That countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done,
Where the youth pined away with desire
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my sunflower wishes to go."
Nobody was less of a 'racist' than William Blake.