Out of the thirteen events on my eleven-city tour in support of Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl, I was most nervous about the one that would take me back to where it all started.
On Feb. 9, I returned to Little Rock, Ark., where I grew up, and to Pyramid Art, Books & Custom Framing, among the first places where I performed spoken word poetry as a teenager. Back then, in the early ’90s, the old location was downtown on Main Street. The new one, a sleeker, brighter and more expansive place, is over on Wright Avenue, in the heart of a historically black section of the city.
Many of the nearly sixty or so people in the audience that night make cameos in the book—old neighbors, teachers and church members who were like surrogate aunts, uncles and cousins. But the face that brought me to tears and sent me scurrying to the restroom to collect myself belonged to Edith Lambert, the fourth grade teacher who first convinced me that I was talented. She oversaw the program for gifted children at Fair Park Elementary. Mrs. Lambert passed on to me collections of poems she thought I’d like. These books—the collected poetry of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and Honey, I Love, the classic by Eloise Greenfield—affirmed something in me and blew open a door inside. Mrs. Lambert looked as though she hadn’t aged a day since the last time I saw her, which was about twenty-five years ago. Her close-mouthed smile, so warm and knowing, transported me back for a moment to when I was that insecure boy who felt alone and unloved.
Now I’m a 38-year-old evolved man, an accomplished culture journalist and author, who returned to the village, as it were, with a gift in the form of a book. Soul Serenade not only tells the story of my difficult childhood with soul music as a connective thread, but it shows the resilience of that village, the people who invested in me early on. My mama, Dianne Ollison, sat up front between her childhood friend, Patricia Griffen, one of the city’s most respected clinical psychologists, and Mary Smith, a retired educator and something of a walking institution.
It was an emotional reading as I stood there, bold, striking paintings behind me, and the people who were so pivotal in my life in front of me. These folks encouraged and lovingly corrected my posture as a boy, back when I had a tendency to stoop and not make eye contact. Rev. Wendell Griffen, Patricia’s husband, the former pastor of my old church, Emmanuel Baptist, and one of the city’s few black judges, crisscrossed the room snapping pictures. He was the closest thing to a father figure I had when my family and I joined his church when I was twelve years old. He taught me how to address a man, how to firmly shake his hand while looking him in the eye. “Let them know who you are,” he told me, words that still ring in my head.
Before the reading, Pyramid felt almost like a family reunion, with people hugging and taking pictures. Some had tears in their eyes. I returned to the village that raised me, to the people who believed in me when I didn’t know to believe in myself; people who taught me elocution, how to enter a room, how to stand before an audience with grace, how to be a man. I signed books until my hand ached. Some folks bought five or six copies. I was constantly rising from my chair behind the table where I signed books to take pictures with this person and that one. The love I felt was almost overwhelming.
On my way back to the hotel after dinner with Mama, the Griffens and Carrie, an old family friend, I cried in the car, overjoyed by the reception at Pyramid and so happy to be alive and well and open to receiving so much love and support. But it has always been there in a word, a hug, a phone call. I had to reach this point in my evolution to embrace it.
I’ve come full circle, anchored in love. I’m never alone in this world. Someone has always prayed for me. Someone has always believed in me. And I returned with a book, a gift, honoring the resilience of that village, the people who loved me before I knew to love myself.
About the Author
Rashod Ollison is an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist. He has been a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Journal News (Westchester, New York), Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. He also wrote a music column for Jet magazine. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison lives in Virginia Beach. Follow him on Twitter at @ and visit his website.