We are shocked and heartbroken. We learned of the sad news that our author, Rashod Ollison, passed away on October 17 from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was forty-one.
He graced our catalog with his coming-of-age memoir Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, and Coming of Age Through Vinyl. In his singular, flavorful writing voice, he brought to life his story of growing up Black and gay in central Arkansas during the eighties and the nineties. Back when we asked him if he had an audience in mind for his memoir, he said he didn’t think anyone would want to read it. “Nothing about the book fits the stereotypical narrative arc of so many memoirs written by Black men,” he wrote in my Q&A with him. “I wasn’t beaten, molested or addicted to drugs. I have never been to jail or prison. I’ve never had any racial self-loathing issues. I was never confused about being homosexual. But I still wanted to read a book about the kind of boy I was and what life was like among gloriously funky Black folks in central Arkansas in the 80s. So, in essence, I wrote the book I wanted to read.” By doing so, he wrote a book that connected with a diverse range of readers who saw their own humanity reflected in his life story, a story now cut prematurely short. We’re so privileged to have published it.
Rashod was also pop music critic and culture journalist at the Virginian-Pilot. Toward the end of his career, he wrote many tribute pieces for music legends we lost, one after the other: Prince, George Michael, Aretha Franklin. I never thought we’d be in the position to have to write a farewell tribute piece for him.
We’ll never forget Rashod’s soulful relationship with music. Whether it was Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Millie Jackson, Stevie Wonder, he wrote about their albums from a place of deep passion. He lived in the rhythms and harmonies of their songs, because they gave him solace as he grew up during the rough times of his childhood. Music was his nourishment. Although we’re heartbroken, we have the music of his prose to comfort us and to remember him. It’s so sad, however, to see his life and talent come to an end so soon. And we’ll miss his electric personality. Rest in power, Rashod! And thank you for all your astute and beautiful writing.
—Christian Coleman, Associate Digital Marketing Manager
Like many of you, I was deeply saddened to learn of Rashod Ollison’s passing. I had the privilege of working with Rashod on his memoir, Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl. As anyone who’s edited Rashod can attest, he was an editor’s dream. He was a natural writer—evocative, eloquent, and always true—and I marveled at the effortlessness of his prose. At his ability to make you hear the music of his youth, smell the mouth-watering Southern cooking, and to feel his pain and triumphs.
I remember Rashod once responded to a question about how he was celebrating the publication of his memoir. He responded that he worked on the book for a decade, that he couldn’t write any book until Soul Serenade was “out of his system.” He shared that writing the memoir was painful but also an exorcism of grief and sorrow. After its publication, his tour was a celebration—of his book but really his life—with family, cherished friends, and strangers, many of whom knew his excellent writing from the Virginian-Pilot.
Rashod’s tour took him to cities on the East Coast, the Mid Atlantic, and the South, and he said the tour was better than anything he could have imagined. He also shared, “Nothing about my past says I should be doing any of this.”
I want Rashod to have the final say here and will conclude with his own words. He writes below of the various celebration in/around/about Soul Serenade.
“The celebration for me is that I honestly, elegantly and lovingly distilled a place, time and people that the mainstream overlooks or ignores altogether. The celebration is that I did something for ‘Dusty,’ that little boy I was, a gifted, sensitive child who always felt so alone in the world. I told that boy’s story. The celebration is that my mother, aunts and sisters—fiercely strong, deeply flawed and richly nuanced black women—come to life on the pages without ever veering into stereotypes. The celebration is that this book assumes the centrality of my gloriously funky and dysfunctional Southern upbringing with no apologies or self-loathing edits for the ‘white gaze.’ It simply is what it is: a human story of resilience. And I can share that with anyone who chooses to open the book and surrender to the text. That is as good a reason as any to celebrate.”
—Gayatri Patnaik, Editorial Director
Rashod was loved by everyone who knew him, even briefly. I’ll never forget his visit to our offices, his spirit and delight. His wonderful book is a lasting gift, I’m so pleased that we have that important piece of his legacy. He broke a lot of ground in his too brief life, and made a lasting mark. I feel very lucky to have had him in my life, even so briefly.
—Helene Atwan, Director
I was shocked and saddened to hear of Rashod Ollison’s passing. I had the pleasure of working as his publicist for his brilliant memoir, Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, and Coming of Age Through Vinyl.
Ollison had such a dynamic, colorful presence. I was so glad we were able to put him on tour for the book. He really lit up a room. He was so grateful to tell his story. “Dusty,” as he was known to his family, grew up in rural Arkansas surrounded by family dysfunction and heartache, but rose above it all through his passion of soul music.
In Emily J. Lordi’s Los Angeles Review of Books review of Soul Serenade, she writes of the book’s title, “it is a serenade to his younger self, the boy who kept the faith and listened.” The book is a tribute to that boy, one who was young, gifted, and black.
The next time I listen to Nina Simone’s titular song, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” I’ll remember Rashod. And I’ll smile.
—Nicholas DiSabatino, former Beacon Press Publicist