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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake
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How does Blake address the black/white binary in "The Little Black Boy"?

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In “The Little Black Boy,” Blake addresses racism and the slave trade through his complication of the black/white binary. Through examination of the oppression, the clear divide between the speaker’s “innocence” and the “experience” of the topic becomes blurred. At first, the binary remains in the expected: “And I am black, but O my soul is white!/White as an angel is the English child,/But I am black, as if bereaved of light” (2-4). The contrast between the black—associated with negativity, darkness, and evil—and the white—associated with positivity, lightness, and good—is the typical neat binary. Blake takes these oppositions, which were rationalizations of racial oppression, and questions their roles. The innocence of the black boy creates a perspective that is both naïve and optimistic, while the reader’s experienced view sees cruel repression. The poem raises the reader’s consciousness to the complexity of the black/white binary. In this way, the two main binaries of the poem clash against each other.

In Blake’s poem, God, equated to the sun, “gives His light, and gives His heat away” as symbols of his love (10). It turns out then that blackness is not “bereaved of light,” but in fact full of it (4). The logic indicates that the boy is black because he is close to God: “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 sunburnt face/Are but a cloud, and like a shady grove” (13-16). God’s love is equated to sunbeams and black faces are depicted as sunburnt, which is a turn from the original binary. Yet, Blake’s verse is even more complicated than that. The boy’s mother tells him that the suffering of their “black bodies” brings them closer to god’s “beams of love,” which is presented as a desirable thing (15, 14). Yet, God’s sunlight is not a comfortable one, but one that they must “learn to bear” (14) There is no clear moral standpoint in the poem.

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