Out in the Bay: Author Dwayne Ratleff on 'Dancing to the Lyrics'

  • by Eric Jansen
  • Thursday August 18, 2022
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"Dancing to the Lyrics" won Dwayne Ratleff a 2021 Best Indie Book Award in the "LGBTQ Coming Of Age" category for "Dancing to the Lyrics." Photo: Courtesy Dwayne Ratleff<br>
"Dancing to the Lyrics" won Dwayne Ratleff a 2021 Best Indie Book Award in the "LGBTQ Coming Of Age" category for "Dancing to the Lyrics." Photo: Courtesy Dwayne Ratleff

Longtime San Franciscan Dwayne Ratleff grew up Black, poor, and gay in 1960s Baltimore. As a youngster, an older neighbor from the South and his loving grandma both taught him: "Don't explain yourself. Be yourself and let that be the explanation."

Ratleff has written an insightful and award-winning first novel — a memoir really — about his childhood that he reads from and talks about on this week's Out in the Bay Queer Radio + Podcast.

"Dancing to the Lyrics" takes us from his sudden uprooting at age 4 from his grandparents' home in small-town Ohio to one of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods, where he lives with his young mother, two sisters and often abusive stepfather. It was excerpted in the Bay Area Reporter in February.

In the book, young Grant ("names changed to protect the guilty," said Ratleff) and sisters find dead gunshot victims in their neighborhood, confront soldiers sent to quell riots after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., see how adults enjoyed New Year's Eve, and much more. It's grim at times, joyful at others. Ultimately, it's inspiring as it shows us the strength, confidence and courage Grant finds en route to manhood, although we only know him in the book from ages 4 to 9.

We meet the characters who informed Grant, based on real people in Ratleff's boyhood. Aunt Porch takes up with handsome womanizer Uncle Ike. When warned by Grant's mother that Ike won't settle down, she says she's fully aware: "You mate with a cheetah in the wild," she says, "you don't take it home and try to domesticate it."

"She was like a total modern woman who took control of her life," said Ratleff. "I latched onto her big-time."

Mister Willy, the Southern root-doctor neighbor, was "the first one who hinted to me that I was gay and that it was OK ... He called me 'a special kind of boy."

In a section of "Dancing to the Lyrics" that Ratleff reads on Out in the Bay, Grant and his mom, out past curfew in search of food during the MLK assassination unrest, confront a young white National Guard soldier who stops them with his bayonetted rifle. The soldier, after hearing their explanation, opens up and lowers his weapon.

"'I joined the Guard so I wouldn't have to kill anyone,'" Ratleff quotes the soldier. "We went from being curfew breakers to a confessional for a soldier from suburbia. He continued, 'I just want you to know I don't believe all the lies that pass for our history. You have every right to be angry at us, and I have no right to tell you how to be angry. Just know that not all of us white people support this.'"

Ratleff based "Dancing to the Lyrics" on his own life partly to be sure there was a record of what really happened. In the 1960s, he said, "those who saw the most were never on the evening news."

Hear Dwayne Ratleff on this week's Out in the Bay, airing 5 p.m. Friday, August 19, on KALW, 91.7 FM SF Bay Area-wide, and 8:30 a.m. Saturday, August 20, on KSFP, 102.5 FM San Francisco only. It is always available on Out in the Bay's website.

Eric Jansen is founding host and executive producer of Out in the Bay Queer Radio + Podcast. Learn more and listen at https://www.outinthebay.org/

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