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Significance of Colour in Relation to Race and Class in “the Little Black Boy”

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Chanyoung Song

Dr. Katherine Zelinsky

English 201-07

12 February 2015

Significance of Colour in Relation to Race and Class in “The Little Black Boy”

“The Little Black Boy” is a poem written by William Blake in 1789. It is based on the life of a little black boy who hopes to be equal to the white English child. The black boy compares his situation to that of the English Child who appears to be favored by God. All through the poem, the theme of racial and class differences are symbolically displayed. One of the symbols used is colour. Blake uses colour to show how differences in skin color formed the basis for racism. He uses colour such as Gold and Silver to depict the class differences existing between people. This paper seeks to analyze how color is symbolically significant in relation to race and class.

        Blake in “The Little Black Boy” uses black and white to denote two different race. Each colour has distinct qualities attributed to it that generally translates to the race it symbolizes. White symbolizes goodness, purity and innocence, whereas black symbolizes darkness and evil. This consequently means that the White race is portrayed as pure, good, and innocent whereas the Black race is portrayed as evil, bad, and full of darkness. This distinction causes the perception that one race is inherently superior to the other. The white race is symbolically portrayed superior to the black race. This negative perception of black-ness is present even within those who are part of the Black race. The boy in the poem perceives white-ness as superior. In fact, he wishes that he was White since although “[he is] black, but oh [his] soul is white” (The Little Black Boy 2). He further goes on to say that the White boy is like an angel, a being who is inherently good, pure, and innocent.

The Black boy feels that God made him black because he did not love him.  He feels “bereaved of light” (4). In his opinion, God loves the English child more because he gave him a color that is a reflection of his light. The Black boy thinks of his body as a cloud that must go away in order for God’s love to come in. The Black boy’s mother teaches him that he is Black because he is closer to God than the White English boy and that is the reason his body is black and his face sun-burnt. The mother believes Black people have to endure all the suffering on Earth and that this brings them closer to God. Here Blake brings another idea that the Black race is closer to God than the White race because of their suffering.

Blake introduces an even more interesting twist to the story when the Black boy’s mother teaches him about the after-life. Tables turn on this side of life and the Black boy’s race becomes superior. Here, the Black child guides and teaches the white boy to bear the love of God. His black cloud is gone and he and the English child’s souls are white and free. This shows that the black boy and the English child are equal despite their difference in skin color. However, as the mother’s teaching imply, this equality can only be achieved in the after-life.

Colour is used symbolically in the poem to portray the class differences between the Black boy and the English boy. The main colors used are gold, white, silver, and black. Gold is associated with God and his heavenly tent. White and silver are used in reference to the English child. On the other hand, the Black color is used in reference to the black boy. If the colours are arranged hierarchically in order of importance and significance, gold would be at the top, followed by silver, then white, with black being the most inferior. Blake uses these colors to show class difference and separation. God is above all creation and thus represented by golden color. The English child is depicted as being closer to God because of his white-ness, and the Black boy is the furthest from God because of his race.

The gold and silver colours used to refer to God’s tent and English child’s hair respectively, are colors of prestige. Blake chose silver to show the English child’s class. It shows the wealthy status of the English child, which further places him higher than the Black boy. This increases the Black boy’s admiration of the English child and in the last stanza the boy “stand[s] and stroke[s] his silver hair” (27). It is apparent that the Black boy desires to be like the English child and to be loved by him.

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