In 1784, William Blake published Songs of Experience with each of his poems having a visual depiction to accompany it. Although Blake only published a limited amount of copies, each copy was unique in its appearance. Through the visual and textual presentation of “The Little Black Boy,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake creates a relationship that enlightens the reader. From Copy C of the Library of Congress’ Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake illustrates the little black boy in a way that correlates with the text of the poem and reveals how adding a visual aspect can reveal more imagination and illumination within the reader. “The Little Black Boy” expresses the effect that racial differences have on children, who are supposed to be innocent at such a young age, but also the ability to overcome the differences and see one another as equals.
On the first page of the poem, above the title “The Little Black Boy,” Blake introduces the poem with an illustration of a mother and her son sitting beneath a tree and the sun shinning in the background. Blake colors the mom and the son black, correlating with the first lines, “My mother bore me in the southern wild, / And I am black, but O! my soul is white.” The white soul demonstrates how Blake believes that children are innocent because of their young age and inexperience, but the fact that the boy is aware that he is different and is conscious of his skin color, shows that associated racial differences have tainted his innocence. As the little black boy struggles with race and his self-hatred towards the color of his skin, his mother consoles him and gives an explanation as to why he is the way he is.
In the illustration above the text, the mother explains the reasoning as she and her son sit in the shade, beneath the tree, with the sun rising in the background. She explains that the reason why they have a darker skin color is because the sun’s rays are actually God’s “beams of love” and that being black is a sign of God’s love. In the picture, the sky is clear, letting all of the light from the sun come towards the earth and towards the little black boy. Yet the boy and his mother are sitting beneath the tree, which is the only thing blocking the sun’s rays. The tree that they are sitting under, which is shading them from the sun and the heat, symbolizes how the impact of society’s view on race is blocking some of God’s love from reaching them and how the black mother and son would rather take in less of the sun’s rays in order to be closer in color to the English people and avoid racial differences.
Beyond the main focus of the drawing, hilly plains travel into the distance without a tree in sight. The lack of trees foreshadows how society’s authority will not taint the boy forever. In the future, there will be nothing separating the innocent child from accepting all of God’s love without having to shelter himself because of his self-hatred.
The drawing and the text being separate from each other also shows how the drawing only depicts a snapshot of the boy’s life. The little black boy is blackened from having to succumb to society’s authority that is looming over children. But as the mother comforts him, it is revealed that the struggle with internalized racism will not last forever. Skin color is only apparent on the outside, and eventually, the boy realizes that “the cloud will vanish” and white and black will be equal.
As the poem transitions from life to what happens after death, a new page is created with another illustration below the text. By creating a physical break in the poem, with the turning of pages, Blake is able to emphasize the difference between life and death, which is not the case in The Norton Anthology English Literature, where the poem continues to flow. The break in the poem also demonstrates how the society’s view on race changes and is nonexistent after death. After death, the children are cleansed and considered fully innocent once again. In addition to the break in the page, the placements of the illustrations also demonstrate the different meanings of the pictures.
The picture on the first page is located above the text, representing how some views are only on the surface. While the picture on the second page is below the text, representing how other views have a deeper, and more true meaning. The first illustration has to do with how society views the little black boy, due to the color of his skin. This view is a shallow opinion that does not take into account the boy as a whole, but the second picture shows a view that is more valuable. This picture shows that despite what the boys look like on the outside, they should be viewed based on what is on the inside and be treated as equals.
In the second illustration, there are two boys—the little black boy and the English child—standing before Jesus under a willow tree. The willow tree represents how despite past racial differences are looming over them, the boys are equal and innocent children of God in the presence of Jesus. Although this copy does not continue the picture within the text, such as copies E, L, R, T, V, Y, Z and AA, the vines of the tree go up and around the text, almost encompassing it. This demonstrates how the past is not able to fully affect what happens after death. And that after death, there is a new beginning in which all are innocent again.
The innocence after death is written only within the last three stanzas of the poem, on the second page of the poem, which goes along with the drawing below the text. In the picture, there are sheep in the background, which represents how Jesus—depicted as a shepherd—is constantly watching and protecting the innocent. Also, the black boy and the white boy are both colored white, showing how skin color and racial differences do not exist in the eyes of God. The color white is also a symbol of purity and innocence and God believes children to be innocent, no matter what their skin color is because the perception of one’s skin color only has meaning when someone puts meaning behind it. Otherwise, it is just a color. By taking away the color from the two boys and making them both white, Blake is able to “cleanse the doors of perception,” and create the two as equals. And as equals, there are no barriers prohibiting the two children from loving one another.
Blake uses the text and the visual depiction of the poem to allow the reader to get involved with the poem on multiple levels. The reader has to use multiple senses, revealing the infinite possibilities that this poem has to offer. With the text and the illustration going hand-in-hand, “The Little Black Boy” demonstrates how different views such as race and issues with identity can cause a child to lose part of his innocence and become subject to unwanted authority. And from then on, it is only possible to regain the innocence lost through death.
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