Dwayne Ratleff grew up Black, poor and gay in 1960s Baltimore. As a youngster, his loving grandma taught him: “Don’t explain yourself, be yourself.”
Long-time San Franciscan Ratleff has written an impressive, insightful, award-winning novel – a memoir really – about his childhood. Dancing to the Lyrics takes us through his sudden uprooting at age 4 from small-town Ohio to one of Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods, where he lives with his young mother, two sisters and often violent stepfather who abuses them all. (For a while, their home was across the street from a state prison and outside their back door was a huge junkyard.)
The book takes us through young Grant (“names have been changed to protect the guilty,” he told me) and sisters finding dead gunshot victims in their neighborhood, massive riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and much more. It’s grim in places, joyful in others. Ultimately, it’s inspiring as it takes us through the strength, confidence and courage this boy finds en route to manhood, even though we only know him in the book from age 4 to 9.
Dancing to the Lyrics won Ratleff a 2021 Best Indie Book Award in the “LGBTQ Coming Of Age” category. I’m so glad he sent me his novel, read from it for Out in the Bay listeners and spoke with us about his life, the people in his boyhood who helped shape who he is now, and his reflections on today’s social turbulence and that of the 1960s.
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