Blackness as Badness
One of Blake’s most fundamental and ever-present ideals is the unification of good and bad – the “marriage of heaven and hell,” the necessity of contradictions. In Blake’s work, he constantly asserts that there is no clear line between good and bad and that such categorizations are dangerous. In Blake’s poem, “The Little Black Boy”, he shows how these categorizations cause subtle racism, which, in turn, cause an internal-struggle for aware non-minorities, and minorities, picking up on many of the issues as portrayed in Shakespeare’s Othello, another great work on racism, by another great English poet.
Subtlety is a salient characteristic of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, in which “The Little Black Boy” appears. The voices of the Songs of Innocence are so innocent that they are often unaware of the negative sides of their subject matter, and negative ramifications of their innocence. For instance, “The Chimney Sweeper” is told in the voice of a chimney sweep who skips over the fact that his father sold him into slavery in four light-hearted lines, does not mention the grotesque aspects of his job, and is unaware that he will be discarded by his society when he reaches adolescence. One must read the Songs of Innocence very carefully to find their dark sides, which makes them even more troubling, because it shows us how ignorant we are to many of the horrible ramifications of our categorizations of good and bad.
“The Little Black Boy” deals with racism in this subtle way. The picture of societal racism given to us in the poem is not one in which everyone is blatantly racist, but one in which everyone has a fundamental idea that black represents bad, and white represents good. This is an omnipresent image in the Western World that persists today. We see it in movies when good characters ride white horses, and bad characters ride black horses because our culture has always viewed heaven, our souls, God, and goodness, as light, or white, and hell, sin, the devil, and badness as the absence of light, or black. On the surface, this does not seem like a problematic categorization, but when Blake probes it by examining how it plays out in the context of human race, we see that it is. In his poem, he shows us that with the assimilation of black people in the Western World, it has become a justification for subtle racism, “I am black, but O! my soul is white; White as an angel is the English child: But I am black as if bereav’d of light.” The little black boy can only be good despite his blackness – he can have a good (white) soul, but his skin color is innately less good than that of the English.
This subtle racism that Blake picks up on is also present in Shakespeare’s Othello. We see it first when Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, is enraged that Othello is going to marry Desdemona. Brabantio is not enraged because he does not like Othello as a human (in fact, Brabantio loves Othello, often having him over for dinner), but because he feels that it would be “unnatural” for the “supersubtle Venetian” to marry the “erring barbarian,” as Iago puts it. Brabantio complains of this to the court, asking them to stop the wedding, but Othello proves his goodness as a human being through his eloquent speech, much like the eloquent speech of the little black boy, and the court decides that Othello, “Is far more fair than black.” Like the little black boy thinks he is only good despite his blackness, so the court thinks that Othello is only good despite his blackness. It is chilling to realize that the simple statement, “He is far more fair than black,” is deeply racist, because we are inclined to read this comment as a compliment to Othello.
Blake realizes that we are inclined to read this racists comment as a compliment to Othello, and he asserts that his is because of our association with blackness and badness. This personally troubles Blake as an aware white person, because he realizes that white people benefit from Western Civilization’s subtle racism – it works to their advantage. Blake shows this in his poem as the black boy must shade the English boy from the heat, and the English boy sits in God’s lap, having his hair stroked by the black boy, “I’ll shade him from 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.” The English boy is immediately considered more heavenly than the black boy because of his whiteness. The English boy’s character is never brought into question, just like Iago’s character is never brought into question in Othello. Iago is one of the most haunting villains in all of literature, but in the play he is automatically, whole-heartedly, and universally thought of as “honest,” which is not the case for the moor or the little black boy, who have to prove that they can be good despite their blackness.
When a white person becomes aware of the dark side of Blake’s image of heaven – the dark side of Western Civilization’s vision of heaven – aware that they have simply passed over the fact that Othello and the black boy can only be good despite their skin color, while Iago is automatically considered honest, it is deeply troubling. It is troubling because the aware white person realizes that they have been unconsciously benefiting from the subtle racism that permeates Western Civilization; and because they can never escape it. By lessening the black person’s humanity, the white person’s humanity is also lessened. Blake portrays this by giving the English boy no trace of humanity, and Shakespeare portrays this by depriving Iago of humanity to the point that Iago himself says, “I am not what I am,” – a parody of the character of God in Geneses saying to Moses, “I am what I am,” associating him with the devil, thus the absence of human goodness.
The most haunting part of Blake and Shakespeare’s visions come when their black characters have internalized the racism inherent in Western Civilization’s association of blackness with badness and whiteness with goodness. Blake delivers this blow to us through the little black boy’s own voice:
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 soles have learn’d the hear 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 lamps rejoice.
By accepting Western Civilization’s ideal that black is bad, the little black boy, along with the rest of Western Civilization, has come to accept that his skin color is bad – “sun-burnt.” He believes that it is a state to be overcome – a shady grove to move out of in order to be in the light of God. He views his skin as a dark cloud, and he believes that while he is under this dark cloud, he will not hear the voice of God. By accepting the idea that whiteness is goodness, he has accepted the subtle racism that it entails and comes to believe that even God does not love him in the same way that God loves the English boy.
Shakespeare’s Othello internalizes racism, as well. Like Blake’s little black boy, Othello wholly accepts Western Civilization’s ideals. We see this in his code of ethics, his military defense of the state, and his hatred of the Turks (a racism in itself). In accepting all of Western Civilization’s ideals, he has to accept the ideal that causes people to think the racist thought, “He is far more fair than black,” – the racism springing from the ideal that blackness is badness. Iago uses this against Othello to convince him that Desdemona, “Seemed to shake and fear your looks.” This causes Othello to believe that Desdemona could not truly love him, “I took you for that cunning whore of Venice/That married with Othello.” To Othello, a loving life with Desdemona would have been heaven on earth, “Had she been true,/If heaven would make me such another world/Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,/I’d not have sold her for it.” But Othello kills Desdemona and himself instead, because his ideal, heavenly world is not possible any place where people associate blackness with badness and whiteness with goodness.
Blake knew this. He saw the awful, racist ramification of associating blackness with badness and whiteness with goodness – subtle racism persisting with the ideal, lessening the humanity of all who buy into it, even those who it is racist against. To him, these were ramifications of the broader categorization of good and bad. Blake believed that when humanity categorizes good and bad, they limit themselves from the positive potential in half the world and the negative potential in the other half. They stop themselves from being able to believe that black can be heavenly, that white can be demonic, that the black boy and the English boy can be equally beautiful, that Othello’s ideal world can become a reality. They limit themselves from half the world, deeming it bad, never exploring its possibilities for beauty.
(Note: Sexism, another major fault manifest in Western Civilization, also leads to the tragedy of Othello through his internalization of the Madonna-whore syndrome. His ideal world is also not possible any place where women’s sexuality is as feared as it is in Western Civilization. Blake explores this theme in his work also (see Visions of the Daughters of Albion, The Sick Rose, etc. Great minds think alike.)