For the fourth of our readings from Blake's poems, actor Matt Ray Brown performs The Little Black Boy. Our recording of this poem from The Songs of innocence and Experience was filmed by Finding Blake's Jonnie Howard at Blake's South Molton Street home.
The Little Black Boy
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And 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.
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say.
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
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 souls have learn'd the heat 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 lambs rejoice.
Thus did my mother say and kissed me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
Ill shade him from the 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.
Finding Blake’s Linda Richardson says of The Little Black Boy: “Almost immediately we hear echoes from The Song of Songs, a passionate love poem about union with the Divine, found right in the centre, at the heart, of the Bible. In The Song of Songs, we meet the ‘beloved’, a Shulamite woman who had been darkened by the sun, the very archetype of God. Perhaps this is where Blake first felt that deep movement and compassion in his spirit towards one of difference, one who feels ‘bereav’d of light’. The poem dances with the metaphor of light and dark and indicates that those who sit in the light of God will become different will become dark and beautiful from exposure to the brightness of Divine radiance.
“At a first reading we might imagine Blake’s The Little Black Boy to be a troubling racist poem, but if we hold steady to the end we will find that it transcends race, transcends light and dark, because we discover that in fact the Little Black Boy is far better prepared for heaven because he has been able to ‘bear the beams of love’ through struggling with the disadvantage of the darkness of his skin. In fact the little black boy has become so good and gracious, he is able to shade the little English white boy who is unprepared for the heat of Divine union.
“Finally, all colour and race are transcended, and when the cloud of superficial colour difference is removed like a cloud, we will see that we are all alike, loving one another without any prejudice where together we can ‘lean in joy upon our fathers knee’.”
Matt Ray Brown reads eight Blake poems for Finding Blake and appeared in the original film for our Crowdfunder video. You can find all Finding Blake videos, as they are posted, on the Finding Blake Films at a Glance page in our Blakean Archive section. You can explore Matt’s work as an actor, including his showreel at Mandy.com, ‘the world’s largest creative community of actors, film and TV crew, theatre professionals, child actors, voiceover artists, dancers, singers, musicians, models and extras.’