RASHOD OLLISON’S memoir Soul Serenade is a special book, in part because it doesn’t claim to be. Ollison makes no case for his exemplarity or his uniqueness. He never breaks the frame of the story he’s telling to justify his decision to tell it. In this way, his memoir resembles works of an earlier era, those unfussy and heartfelt first-person narratives by alienated and driven young black men like Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Ollison’s assumption that his story matters aligns his memoir with these classic literary works and dramatizes his acceptance of his fourth grade teacher Mrs. James’s advice to “just keep on steppin’ like you somebody.”
Like so many of Ollison’s formative lessons, this advice is transmitted through song. Mrs. James alludes to “This Little Light of Mine” as she tells him, “Don’t let anybody take [your light] and don’t you hide it, either.” R&B music, in particular, helps nurture that light after Ollison’s father leaves his family with little more than his record collection. At first, the tough yet tender voices of Bobby Womack, Al Green, and Chaka Khan help the young Rashod construct an image of his absent father, a man whose service in Vietnam drained him of most passions apart from music. But his father’s soul records also help Ollison create himself: a brilliant black gay writer driven by love more than by anger.
In 1955, Ralph Ellison described the choice before him: to “either live with music or die with noise.” Thirty years later, Ollison’s need for music is no less urgent, but his alternative is silence. Silence surrounds his father’s departure; his own sexuality; his mother Dianne’s illness from cancer; the whereabouts of his older sister Dusa, who leaves home; and the changes in fortune that move his family to homes and schools all over Arkansas. Ollison describes these developments in simple yet beautiful prose that swings easily from the figurative to the concrete. Of his mother, he writes:
In 1983, her marriage fell in sharp glittering pieces all around her. My oldest sister, Dusa, was fourteen; Reagan, the youngest, was five; and I was six. Garden Street was bleak, save for the aural sunbeam of Aretha [Franklin] singing through the surface noise of well-worn vinyl, assuring us that God would take care of everything.
As his description of Franklin suggests, Ollison reserves his most lyrical language for his dreamlike encounters with musical icons, the ghosts in the machine of his record player. Those who know Ollison as a music critic for The Virginian-Pilot — a writer with an encyclopedic grasp of music and a gift for contextualization and critique — might be surprised by his mode of music writing here, where he downplays his own authority in favor of a more intimate, impressionistic approach. But it works. Chaka Khan looks and sounds like “a woman who tamed lions in her backyard and kept a full moon somewhere in her purse.” Stevie Wonder reveals the art of “openhearted” love, with his “man-child smile behind every note stretched liked taffy.” Ollison recaptures the “chic,” “honey-brown” Michael Jackson of the “Billie Jean” era — the moment before the singer turned his voice into a “switchblade” to become “Bad,” and long before his alleged entanglements with children would have complicated young Rashod’s fantasies about the King of Pop coming to his home in a “pearl stretch limo” to take him away.
But for all the ways that music serves as a refuge and a guide through time, Soul Serenade is not only — and not even primarily — a book about music. It is also a nuanced social history and detailed geography of working-class and middle-class-aspirant African Americans in the urban and suburban South of the 1980s and ’90s — and is thus a crucial corrective to historical records that render their lives invisible. Ollison’s mother Dianne, a woman whose “middle-class aspirations” are “stifled […] by her perpetual lack of funds,” tirelessly seeks better-paying jobs and more well-appointed homes in the face of rent hikes and “shutoff notices in the mail.” The Ollisons move constantly, from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to various parts of Little Rock, navigating a post-civil rights, post-integration landscape marked by inter-school busing, Talented and Gifted programs, and de facto segregated suburbs. Sometimes they live amid “mostly retired, standoffish, and white” neighbors. Sometimes the nicer neighborhoods are the black ones, places where the schools include Black History Month, newly expanded from one week to four in 1976, the year before Ollison’s birth.
Ollison describes people and places with a journalist’s eye for the telling detail and a novelist’s ear for dialogue. “Like most American public high schools for poor and middle-class students,” his school “had the dismal, industrial look of a prison complex, with harsh lighting and ugly concrete walls.” “Betty next door to us was one of Miss Wells’s daughters and a projects diva,” he writes. “Svelte and stylish with no job, Betty smoked cigarettes and in the summer squeezed her cantaloupe breasts into tube tops.” Rumors surround his grandmother, Mama Teacake, who accidentally shot and killed one of her own children during a fight with her husband:
Them Teacake’s kids.
Uh-huh. They had another sister, ’member?
They sho did! Wasn’t that awful?
Awful ain’t the word. And didn’t go to jail or nothin’. You can still hear Teacake and Ollie down that hill cussin’ and fussin’ and actin’ a fool. You’d think a child gettin’ killed over some mess would change they ways and they come on to Jesus.
Come on to Jesus while you still have time.
And a child died.
When Rashod is in ninth grade, his future best friend and love interest Andre strikes up their first conversation:
“What you think about science class?”
“Yeah, it’s boring.”
“And ugly. He looks like the inside of a frog’s ass.”
Andre dropped his head on his arm and his shoulders shook as he laughed […]
“What does that even look like?”
This is probably the place to observe that Ollison is also a master of shade. Of his father’s woman-on-the-side, Clara Mae, he observes, “her stringy, rust-colored Jheri curl was in desperate need of a few more sprays of activator.” His care for his mother as she undergoes cancer treatment is laced with his contempt for her boyfriend:
Whatever it takes, whatever I need to do, I’m going to find a way to make Mama happy. She’ll come home from work and will be glad to see me, beaming the smile she gave a greasy-haired Rick James wannabe who smoked cigarettes and wore a pinky ring.
Ollison doesn’t exempt himself, either. By wearing dashikis, he hopes to convey that he “communed with the ancestors and shit” as he walks the halls of his middle school “dressed like an extra from the movie Coming to America.”
His humor distinguishes his work from other black bildungsroman by authors from Malcolm X to Barack Obama — stories of sensitive, high-achieving social outcasts whose worlds are expanded through music and books. But Ollison also enriches this tradition by foregrounding gay male desire and by giving life to the people on the margins: the complex “blues women” on the block who “weren’t necessarily wise, just hardened by a chain of fools,” the black girls who cling to Mary J. Blige as a “cultural guidepost,” just as his mother had worshipped at “the altar of Aretha.”
Although he never stops missing his father, it is black women who help make him a man and a writer, funding his trip to a creative arts summer camp, urging him to read his poetry in public, instructing him to never hide his light. He gathers resources as the story proceeds: a group of female friends, a supportive pastor, and new teachers. The book’s themes consequently multiply, a structural issue that Ollison mainly handles with grace. Still, one expects a follow-up to his statement that “at sixteen, I figured I’d never have sex.” The twin themes of music and his father also drop out at times. This might reflect the flow of life itself, but these small inconsistencies feel like flaws in the book’s generally meticulous design.
In an almost too perfect symmetry, the book ends as 18-year-old Ollison leaves his father’s funeral to attend a citywide academic ceremony where he wins a scholarship to college. As in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Lucille Clifton’s Generations, the death of the father blows the author’s future open. If Ollison’s father was, in the words of an aunt, “a great example of what not to be,” how might his son avoid his example without resenting him? How might he “convert the anger […] into fuel for something progressive?” The story ends with these questions — and a host of resources — intact.
The title of Ollison’s book alludes to a blues-toned 1967 recording by Aretha Franklin. Franklin addresses a lover, but we might ask who is being serenaded here. Ollison himself, of course, is serenaded by the music he cherishes. But his book is also a serenade in prose to all those who helped him survive and thrive in a world not designed to accommodate him — those musicians and everyday people who offered encouragement, prayers, a kind word. And it is, perhaps most poignantly, a serenade to his younger self, the boy who kept the faith and listened.
Emily J. Lordi is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.