God Lives in the Sun: The Critique of Evangelical Abolitionism in William Blake's “The Little Black Boy”

european romantic review

Late eighteenth-century narratives of enslavement were, for London readers such as William Blake, an “authentic” source of information about the British Empire's slave trade—the horrors of the Middle Passage, the humanity of the peoples who found themselves in chains, the wonder of the distant lands from which they were ripped. From the 1770s, such texts had begun to give accounts of spiritual redemption through conversion to Christianity, thus legitimizing the voice of the author within European discourse. This essay focuses on one particularly prominent example, Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative (1789), and examines the possibility that Blake's “The Little Black Boy” (1789) is a direct and critical response. The essay argues that Blake's poem speaks not with conventional abolitionist rhetoric, nor with oft-suggested ambiguity, inconsistency, or racism, but rather with intense criticism of the Eurocentric evangelical discourse that came to inform abolitionist campaigns and of the resultant African-European voice constructed in texts such as The Interesting Narrative. In particular, the distorted heaven depicted in the poem is seen as sardonically imitating the liminal space occupied by the African in London—between freedom and slavery, between pastoral religiosity and institutional Protestantism.