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Out in the Bay

Writer Dwayne Ratleff on ‘Dancing to the Lyrics’

Dwayne Ratleff grew up poor, Black and gay in 1960s Baltimore. As a youngster, his loving grandma taught him: “Don’t explain yourself, be yourself.”

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 and abusive stepfather. 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 us) 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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This edition of Out in the Bay, first aired in 2022, was funded in part by Project Open Hand, providing 2,500 life-saving meals and 200 bags of groceries daily to sustain people experiencing illness, social isolation, or the health challenges of aging. Learn more at OpenHand.org. Project Open Hand – Meals with Love

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Eric Jansen is a long-time broadcaster and print journalist. A former news anchor, producer and reporter at KQED FM, San Francisco; KLIV AM, San Jose; and Minnesota Public Radio, Eric's award-winning reports have been heard on many NPR programs and PRI's Marketplace. His print work has been in The Mercury News, The Business Journal, and LGBTQ magazines Genre and The Advocate, among other publications. He co-produced the June 2007 PBS documentary Why We Sing!, about LGBTQ choruses and their role in the civil rights fight.