If you read my last blog, you know that I use Shakespeare to invoke serious matters, while I use Dylan for more playful purposes. Well, we’ve got some unpacking to do here. The title “Gentle Rain of Heaven,” is an allusion to Shakespeare: Portia’s speech near the end of The Merchant of Venice. But you might not have noticed that because I’m screaming Dylan at you in the epigram. Further, it’s Dylan talking about Shakespeare: “Now, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley, with his pointed shoes and his bells” (we’ll leave the French girl for another time).
So, all this suggests to me that this poem will be my attempt to address something serious in, if not a playful way, at least an indirect way.
I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and the most serious problem we still face is the failure to
achieve meaningful racial integration. It’s serious. White people in Richmond were selling Black people into slavery right up until the day that Richmond crashed and burned in 1865. I couldn’t blame Black people if they held a grudge. In fact, I’m amazed that so many Black people don’t.
But that certainly doesn’t solve the problem.
Many people are now insisting that we collectively should have a meaningful conversation about racism (of course, there are governors in some Southern states who would prefer to ban all conversations about race because it might make some white people feel bad. Poor babies!). I’m sure that an honest conversation about race would be a good thing. On the other hand, my experience is that collectively – Black and White – we really are not very good at it. I’m sure that saying that will offend some people, but that’s my point: any honest conversation about race in America is bound to offend some people, although I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t keep trying. I am writing this, after all (BTW, if I haven’t offended anyone yet, please, somebody forward this to Governor DeSantis).
My experience is that it is easier to be with people, regardless of race, if we simply do something together – for example, play basketball. I graduated from a predominately Black high school, and my experience was that when we were doing things together, we got along pretty well. But when people started talking politics, things got weird pretty quickly.
So, I played basketball with my co-workers, and it took me the summer to realize that I was the only white guy who played. The other white guys in the office were not bad people or racist or anything like that. They simply didn’t play. It’s amazing how many white people live in predominately Black Richmond and simply don’t really know any Black people.
Playing together is a good thing, but perhaps there’s something else as well. In Richmond in the summer, when the heat and humidity build, we all face a coming storm. In the poem, Glen would tell us to shut down the machines and gather under the bay so we could watch the storm but still stay safe and dry. Generally, no one spoke; we would sit in silence, watching the not-so-gentle rain driving down on all of us. Sometimes maybe we all simply need to be together quietly, realizing the same storm is coming for all of us, as the gentle rain of heaven that falls on the good and the evil alike.
Silence, like Portia’s mercy at the end of The Merchant of Venice, is not
strained. It won’t solve all the problems, but it might give us a moment of peace.