I got the following story from E.S. Turner’s What the Butler Saw.
As you may or may not be aware, in eighteenth-century Britain, it was extremely fashionable to own young black boys and present them in the capacity of ‘pet’. Keep in mind that slavery was not abolished in the UK until the 1830s, but the abolition movement gained serious traction by the end of the eighteenth century. So obviously there was some friction between what was ‘fashionable’ and what was morally right.
“Usually, black servants were disposed of privately, which spared annoyance to those cranks who did not care to see human beings sold like horses …. In the main, black boys in Britain were indulgently treated. Some were groomed as domestic pets, dressed in fine clothes and tricked out in jewelled silver collars as a token of their dependence (William III’s slave had a padlocked white marble collar).”
Guys, NO. If the Lego scandal has taught us anything, it’s that slave collars are never okay. Even if they are jewelled.
“Often they were sent to school, instructed in the Christian religion and baptised. Such cosseting, physical and spiritual, was resented by plantation owners who, on their sojourns in Britain, kicked and beat their black boys as heartily as they did in the West Indies. When the lads fled they were hunted down with all proper rigour, and a black fugitive had not much chance in a white country. Anyone who enticed a slave from his master, or harboured him while the search was on, was liable to be prosecuted for theft of goods” (81-82).
I use William Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy” (1789) to teach my students about subversive or implicit racism. Blake, who was an ardent abolitionist, writes this poem as a way to promote racial equality, and yet manages to couch his terms in a way where ‘white’ equals a good, powerful, and innocent baseline, and ‘black’ equals a bad, unfortunate, heathen state to be overcome:
The Little Black Boy (1789)
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 noon day.
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:
I’ll 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.