The poem “The Little Black Boy” uses contrasting ends of color spectrum to emphasis certain points. The contrasting colors are displayed in both the image and the text. Blake’s style in the poem is very simple, but the ambiguity in the color choice makes it harder to understand. Interpretation of the poem possibly brings out Blake's underlying social and spiritual influences. Changing the lens through which the poem is viewed converts small subtleties into something more powerful. Also, linking the color choices in the image with the text adds another level of complexity to the work. The careful placement and wording is not by coincidence. Blake constructs the arrangement to further enhance or challenge the reader’s preconception.
When analyzing the first image in the poem, Blake uses darker colors and covers most of the image with black. The only vibrant part of the image is the sun, which has strong reds and yellows. The two people sitting under the tree and sun are the main focal points in the image. Blake uses darkness for the tree to give it significance, but doesn’t give it visual details so it doesn’t overpower the image. Making the tree black connects with the poem when the mother says “being black is just a cloud”(Blake). The tree gives shade from the sun is similar to a cloud giving shade during the day.
It is interesting that the color from the sun stops where the people are sitting. The boys arm acts like a physical representation of a blockade that the sun can’t get through. Blake’s setup of the image also gives it a structured feel because the colors stop at distinct points. The color from the sun is framed with the tree, hills, and the boys arm. Breaking the image up into quadrants makes the image more simplistic for the reader to visualize and interpret. Simplicity of the image meshes well with the simple style of the poem.
There is uncertainty in the time frame which the mother and son are sitting in the grove. It starts out describing the heat of the day, changes to morning sun, and ends with it being noon. The overall darkness seems like Blake wanted the picture to reflect the rising sun in the morning. The redness of the sun, mother, and son makes it seem like a hot day. The red could be the reflection from the sun or the fact that they are hot from the sun. Pairing the poem with how the people are colored make them have a hot appearance. There are yellows and oranges radiating out from the center of the sun giving it brightness. Blake uses a light blue color where the text is placed to represent the sky. Using a lighter color draws the reader to the middle and makes the text easier to read. The contrast of the light and dark puts more emphasis on the on the light part of the image. So in a way Blake captures all the parts of the day in the image.
One way to interpret the poem is to view being black as socially acceptable and a blessing. The mother describes being black as a necessity in life. It is just like being under a tree in the hot sun. The darkness of the image contradicts the positive idea and makes the poem gloomier. The country where Blake is from does have a history that is negative towards black people. Around the 18th century, slavery was a large portion of Britain’s overseas trade and economic infrastructure(Draper). Blake was perhaps aware and emotionally affected by the slavery choices of Britain. Along with seeing the tree as a cloud, the tree can be inferred as the child’s idea about being black. It can be a metaphor that the issue will always be hovering over top of him. Draper uses the term “debt to slavery”, which hints that the conflict is still there even though slavery has diminished. Blake couldn’t predict the future, but shows that the poem ages well with the society. Blake changes the importance in the picture by having the boy point to the dark tree. The changing of focus makes it seem like the boy is more worried about blackness than God sending out rays of love.
Blake has a recurring theme of religious good and evil. Making the distinction of which color is good and which is evil changes how the poem reads. Sherman and Clore did a study on words and moral perception. According to their study, people are quicker to see black as immoral and negative. A white object is seen as “something that can be stained easily and that must remain unblemished to stay pure” (Sherman and Clore). Describing the English child as a white angel makes the reader think negatively of the black child. Although the black boy says he has a white soul, the soul seems blemished by the skin. So in a way he is being portrayed as evil but with good intentions internally. The dark colors shown in the image could show the evilness that is associated with the story. If this is the case, Blake is presenting that evil is always around us and that we are in a way reliant on evil. The section of the poem “And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair”(Blake) gives the white boy innocence. The stroking of his hair has a nurturing and protective aspect which is conflicting if the black boy is evil. The evil is there to protect the innocent child until he can withstand the evils of the environment. One can even extend the idea to evil objects that are a necessity for life. Coal is a black object that is a necessity for warmth and electricity. However, coal can have a negative view in that it is harmful to humans, pollutes the environment, and creates turmoil in the society.
A contradiction of seeing white as good is displayed when the poem describes the sun as being God. The black boy has the ability to withstand the sunrays of God’s love. Someone that is seen in a positive view should have a close pairing to something good. The white boy in a way is opposite to that of God’s love and can’t mesh with heaven. On the other hand, God’s love could be depicted as negative and the hardships associated with life on Earth. God’s love is the humbling experience of overcoming the obstacles of an imperfect world. Being black has the attributes of withstanding the harshness associated with God’s rays. Since the white boy’s soul is never described, speculation can be made on if it is actually white. The black boy has the desire to be similar to the white boy. The similarity he is wanting could be more of skin color rather than the soul. In the black boy’s eyes, the white boy won’t accept him until they are similar and proven worthy.
The poem continues with another picture that is more suited for the passage. Blake uses lighter colors and keeps a small portion of the ground dark. The bent tree is still over the people, but the tree has more details and isn’t completely black. The large portion of yellow behind the text could either be coming from the sun or a continuation of the leaves. The yellow is intertwined in the branches which makes it seem like the leaves are yellow. However, the yellow stops at the hills like the previous picture which makes the yellow seem like it is coming from the sun. Blake says in the poem “Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear”(Blake). The yellow coming through the tree could be a representation of the boy being ready to bear the heat and the sun finally coming through cover.
The poem explains that the white boy will love him because he will shade him from the heat. I felt that this gave the tree a more positive role in the picture. The tree is drawn so that it grows up into the text and has more of a role in the picture. There is also a religious feel to the way it is colored. The mother has a white circle around her head that looks like an aura. Pictures of angels sometimes are shown like this instead of wearing halos. The mother is also holding something that looks like a shepherd’s cane. This signifies her guidance and wanting to help the children. Her clothes are colored a light blue, which gives her a soft and loving quality. The black boy is also colored a light blue. He is pointing towards the other boy instead of towards the tree. The black boy’s focus changes from the tree to the other boy.
The author, Adler, wrote a journal article which has an interesting view on the poem. Adler has a point that focuses on how the poem reads at the boy’s level and how he is seeing the mother’s advice. Adler says, “his mother’s arguments are merely a form of comfort, he does not examine them deeply, he makes them mean what he wants them to mean.” The boy does not see obvious contradictions which are blanketed by his desires(Adler). Examining the poem with this observation gives meaning to the simplicity of the poem. A young child’s life is simple and naive in the beginning. The child doesn’t realize the meaning to the explanation and only exhibits the results which he feels desirable. Religious topics such as the soul, God, and heaven could be mere regurgitated words he hears daily. Real religious experiences and meaning are still foreign to the child. This could be where the real meaning of the poem is lost and naive perspective molds the poem into what is shown.
The images in the poem are colored in very different ways. Creating layers of depth both visually and textually change a simplistic people into a challenging poem. The color scheme when viewed as a whole changes from dark to light. This could play on the fact the boy was not comfortable with being black and eventually was content with the mother’s explanation. Blake’s coloring in the first image brings out the title and the sun. The coloring in the second image focuses more on the people and the tree. Coloring the picture in a particular way changes the interpretation of the poem. Blake uses the pictures as a transition from the boy paying attention to being black in the first part to the boy helping other people in the second part. Viewing the poem as a whole, then breaking it down into small sections shows the complexity and cleverness of Blake.
Adler, Jacob. “Symbol and Meaning in ‘The Little Black Boy’”. Modern Language Notes,
Vol. 72, No. 6 (Jun., 1957), pp. 412-415. Published by The John Hopkins University Press. Print.
Blake, William. “Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human
Soul, 1789 - 1794.” Oxford: Oxford U, 1988. Print.
Draper, N. “The City of London and Slavery: Evidence from the First Dock Companies, 1795-1800.” The
Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 61, No. 2 (May, 2008), pp. 432-466. Published by Wiley on behalf of the Economic History Society. Print.
Sherman, Gary, and Gerald Clore. “The Color of Sin: White and Black Are Perceptual Symbols of Moral
Purity and Pollution.” Psychological Science 2009 20: 1019. Print.