Dwayne Ratleff, author of the memoir Dancing To The Lyrics. (Courtesy photo)
By Nadine Matthews
Special to the AFRO
Dwayne Ratleff spent so many of his early school years as a Special Ed student, it’s still hard for him to believe he wrote a book. He tells Baltimore Afro, “I was a Special Ed student. I didn’t learn to read and to write until I was around ten or eleven, so if someone had told me that I would be writing a book, I would have laughed at them.” This is a big part of the reason he wrote Dancing To The Lyrics. “I wanted to give people like me hope. I think a lot of children put in Special Ed are really late bloomers.”
Ratleff describes Dancing To The Lyrics as a memoir, “because it’s more islands of true memory, connected by bridges.” Though names are changed and some of the incidents fictionalized, they track very closely to his own life. Like Ratleff’s own childhood, at the center of the main character’s life are his two sisters, mother, and his step-father, who sadistically abused Ratleff’s mother physically and mentally for years.
Ironically, it was his step-father’s naked, unabashed approach to violence that spared Ratleff some emotional turmoil as an adult. “His behavior was so obviously bad, I knew it wasn’t about me,” stated Ratleff. “I thought, ‘I just have to live long enough to get out of this house.’ I feel good because I’m out of that. Other than him, I had a good childhood.”
Born in Ohio, Ratleff and his family moved to Baltimore when he was about five, and lived there for six years before moving to Connecticut. In Dancing To The Lyrics, he weaves Baltimore of the mid-20th Century as a rich tapestry full of bold personalities and colorful characters of all ages. “Baltimore was such a rich, beautiful city. They used to sing while they sold the newspapers, and it was one of the few cities that still had arabbers,” he stated, referring to the iconic street vendors selling fruits and vegetables from colorful horse drawn carts. “I wanted to write something that would show that vitality of the city.”
Though Baltimore was never “the deep south,” Ratleff describes the Baltimore of his youth as deeply southern. “So many of the people in Baltimore then,” he explained, “had recently migrated from the South.” People also looked out for each other.“This was ‘pre-The Wire.’ Yes, there was violence, but there was such a strong sense of community.”
The story plays out against the backdrop of a radically changing country during the 60s. The biggest touchpoint being the murder of Martin Luther King, and the ensuing civil disobedience. Seen through Ratleff’s childhood eyes, Baltimore was set ablaze by “glowing balls of fire,” was “invaded” by the military. Adults’ whirlwind emotions confused him. His mother forced him and his sisters to wear their Easter clothes to watch the televised funeral for the civil rights leader. Ratleff’s young protagonist also has a dawning realization that though he saw few White people, they immensely impacted on his life as a Black American.
Ratleff, who has lived with HIV for 30 years, said he also wrote the book because he was always asked what it was like to grow up gay in Baltimore during that time. “There was homophobia for sure. Like, if you were caught coming out of a gay bar, you could get beat up.” Most of Black Baltimore, however, didn’t really judge his sexuality, though many realized he was gay at a young age. Ratleff, however, escaped this in Baltimore, where he counted many adults as friends and mentors. “The older people, especially those not in the church, didn’t care. I encountered more homophobia when me and my family moved to Connecticut.”
His HIV diagnosis, he said, gave him the freedom to “go ahead and just live life.” He decided to open his own cleaning business. “I decided I would rather clean people’s mess than put up with it,” he said half-jokingly. He traveled the world and auditioned as a contestant on Jeopardy.
Ratleff’s completion of his book is remarkable in another way. He was seriously injured in a car accident a few years ago which left him without full use of his hands. “I had to type the whole thing with one finger,” he explains. “I wanted to say I may have been Black, I may have been gay, I may have been Special Ed, I may have disabilities, but I still went ahead.”