“Let them know who you are”

Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl: A Memoir

By Rashod Ollison

Beacon Press, 2016

Writing about the past requires emotional clarity in the present, and clarity is the hallmark of music critic Rashod Ollison’s enthralling memoir Soul Serenade. If soul is understood as an expression for vulnerability Mr. Ollison’s reflection is aptly named for he reveals the inner layers of his childhood years growing up in Arkansas as tenderly and honestly as a reader could wish.

Ollison structures the book in four parts: Part One introduces you to his parents Dianne and Raymond, and their courtship. He also shares their early adulthood disappointments; his mother drops out of college after her first year and his father is drafted for the Vietnam War. Part Two covers his first 10 years which includes four moves, his father’s abandonment, his mother’s struggles to remain afloat economically, the growing tensions among his siblings older sister Dusa and younger sister Reagan, and a fight that further splits the family. In Part Three Dianne has moved the family to Little Rock and Rashod’s talents impress his teachers and church leaders, but he struggles to connect with classmates, especially other boys. Gradually, as he is exposed to great literature and advances academically he gains confidence making friends and receiving plaudits for his writing. The family continues its nomadic pattern, moving four times between fourth grade and tenth grade for financial reasons, but he is looking ahead to college. Part Four depicts two family tragedies that are difficult but he persists steadfastly choosing to move forward with his life, going to college, and learning from the past.

Photo of author Rashod Ollison by Hyunsoo Leo Kim (Source: www.rashodollison.com).

Photo of author Rashod Ollison by Hyunsoo Leo Kim (Source: www.rashodollison.com).

As the subtitle, Rhythm, Blues, and Coming of Age through Vinyl, indicates music is integral to his story. For him it is an emotional salve from a chaotic daily life including navigating his hard working but emotionally distant mother Dianne; longing for the presence of his charismatic but absent father; and surviving life in a small town as a creative, effeminate and literate gay boy. In the “primal wail” (57) of Chaka Khan, the gospel of Aretha, and tenderness of Marvin Gaye and Al Green, Ollison finds solace recognizing vital pieces of his emotional life. He is equally drawn to the slick moves of Soul Train dancers and captivated by, as were most children of the 1980s, Michael Jackson’s pioneering Thriller videos. As a teenager he understands why the girls in his community identity with the tough façade Mary. Blige’s hip-hop inflected soul projects to her listeners. More importantly he recognizes their inherent vulnerability, noting, “a closer look, or listen, revealed that they were absolutely afraid, just as Mary was—afraid of not being loved, of not being understood.” (163). He draws the musical and emotional line, however, at gangsta rap (“I felt neither welcomed nor authenticated,” 167) whose macho posturing is at odds with his sensitivity and refined sensibilities. This rejection of hip-hop is somewhat unusual for a music critic of his generation, but his willingness to defy convention does not stop at musical taste.

Ollison is a brave and emotionally perceptive writer, and Soul Serenade dares to suggest that families are often emotionally unsafe and unwelcoming. He has affection for his loving, if unreliable, father and its clear why: He introduces him to classic soul music, welcomes him to hang out with he and his male friends, and showers him with affection. Dianne works ridiculously hard to make sure he and his sisters live in nice apartments in safe neighborhoods.  If she is not always as gentle as she could be, Ollison lets you into special moments that reveal a fuller portrait of her; like when she listens to Aretha Franklin’s classic gospel album Amazing Grace during difficulty times, or her coaching advice for Rashod when he has opportunities to read his poetry publicly. She roots for him even if she expresses this reservedly.

Dusa and Dianne are frequently at odds and he details two violent altercations (They reconcile eventually). He and Reagan have a highly contentious relationship, and his maternal grandmother Mama Teacake dismisses and ridicules him as a child.  For Ollison the comfort of music, the generosity of teachers and mentors, and the prose of literary giants, like Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, eventually gave him what he needed to become himself and transcend some of the challenges of his family.  

 Throughout his childhood teachers, like his fourth grade teacher Mrs. James who recommended him for a gifted student program, his eight grade teacher Mrs. Carpenter, who exposed him to African-American literary fiction, and his tenth grade teacher who recommended he pursue journalism, recognized Ollison’s gift for language. He is a gifted storyteller who draws you into a variety of situations with uncommon warmth and intimacy. This precocious quality also partially explains why he often found himself isolated from peers who taunted him for being a good student (accusing him of thinking he’s “white” in seventh grade), and even more devastatingly, ostracizing him for being effeminate and uncoordinated at sports. His family is especially harsh in this regard, ridiculing him for “acting like a girl” and leading him to constantly edit himself, and withdraw into his shell.

 Like Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in my Bones he illuminates life growing up as a young black person with limited resources in the contemporary post 1970s South. It is an often tough place to be characterized by poor living conditions, constant moving, drug addiction, and broken families. Yet there remains a shared sense of communality among neighbors, and family bonds remain endure even when fathers are absent, cousins are unreliable, and grandmothers are cold. There is disappointment and ache in Ollison’s prose, but never bitterness.

One of the most endearing stories he tells is of being accepted by the men of Emmanuel Baptist Church’s male mentoring group The Shepherd’s Club.  Beyond religion the group’s pastor, Reverend Griffin, who is also a judge, aims to impart a sense of esteem among the boys. In the midst of coaching the young men on how to shake hands he tells Rashod specifically, “look me in the eye. Grip my hand, son. Always stand straight and look a man in his eye, and always give a firm handshake. There, like that. Let them know who you are” (125). Years later, as a 15-year-old struggling emotionally at a mostly white camp for gifted and talented students, the Reverend sends Rashod a letter affirming his talents. From it he “felt a wave of comfort, a kind of metaphysical hug” that inspired him to let go and delve into the camp. He repeats the Reverend’s refrain in mantra-like fashion: Let them know who you are. By the end of Soul Serenade you develop a clear sense of where Ollison was as a child, how he grew into a young man, and can sense who he was to become. Best of all you are eager to know more.