Dancing to the Lyrics, by Dwayne Ratleff, is a timeless and timely coming-of-age tale. Through the eyes of the young protagonist, Grant Cole, we are offered a first-hand account of an African-American gay youth who perseveres in spite of personal and family obstacles as well as the larger challenges of his era.
As Grant struggles to comprehend his own nature, his world, and the adults who populate it, he observes and emotionally reacts to the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the Baltimore riots, the Vietnam War and more. Poverty, accompanied by crime, violence and fear, is his frequent companion, but his own vivid imagination and close relationships with his younger sisters, various family members and friends bring hope and humor into his life.
Ratleff, a Palm Desert resident, was honored with a 2021 Best Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ Coming of Age category. He tells the Independent: “The book is about my experience growing up as a Black gay child in Baltimore during the 1960s. “It was a time when those who witnessed the most were never interviewed on the evening news. What furthers this accomplishments is the fact that I am a former special ed student who did not learn to read or write until the age of 10 or 11. I often thought I would be the last person to write a book.
“I am also a long term survivor with HIV. Thirty years ago when first diagnosed I was told I would most likely be sick in three years and dead in five. Someday I will write about that experience but at the moment that pen is too heavy to lift.”
Below is an excerpt from Dancing to the Lyrics.
April 4, 1968, was a special day. My mother had taken the day off from work because it was her birthday. We were also celebrating that she had recently received a ten percent pay increase. She was now making $1.75 an hour. Since she had had a good night’s sleep, she made pancakes for breakfast instead of serving us cold cereal. The pancakes were a partial salve on my disappointment about sleeping through the launching of Apollo Six that morning.
Apollo Six was brought to my attention by our third-grade teacher, Mrs. Kidman. It was the last, unmanned launch in the Apollo program. Mrs. Kidman said we would land men on the moon within a year or two. The day before the launch we talked of nothing else. She gave us a drawing assignment. We had to draw a picture of what it would be like for people to live on the moon. Many of the children were better artists than I was. Most drew pictures of domes and outbuildings with men in space suits in the foreground doing moon things. I went for an interior scene and drew an elegant woman with a bouffant hairstyle sitting under a dome, decorated by a 21st-century gay designer who also happened to be her hairdresser. She sipped chocolate milk from a martini glass and made dinner with the push of a button. It was not a very good drawing, but it was unique, and I won.
I was given the honor of being the flag bearer the next day, which was the launch date for Apollo Six. Each day one boy, always one of the taller ones, would be chosen to hold the flag in front of the class. He was accompanied by two shorter boys, who acted as color guards, one on each side of the standard bearer. Then we would put our hands over our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I had the honor of being a color guard several times but never the standard bearer. Mrs. Kidman was a stickler for standards and symmetry. The standard bearer had to be taller than the color guards, and girls were not allowed to be either. There were only two boys shorter than me in my class, so they became color guards by default.
That morning my mother sacrificed a few minutes of her birthday to put shoe polish on my scuffed-up shoes and brushed them until they shined. They shined enough for me to see a reflection of the flag if I chose to look down. But I would not be looking down. I would be holding my head high, for I had the honor of holding the flag. My excitement stemmed not from patriotic zeal but from prestige. Holding the flag was being special. Every morning we practiced patriotism for a country I had no concept of. Flags are pretty, but I loved people, and America was all those around me.
Before leaving the house for my special day, I got to see democracy in action. Although it was our mother’s birthday, she asked us what kind of cake we wanted. I voted for lemon cake. Peanut and Gwen voted for chocolate. In a two-cake race, chocolate always won in our house.
At school, I took my place in front of the class. My imagination had taken me places my stature could not. I was the tall one holding the flag for a grand total of 20 seconds. Anticipation was greater than the moment. Until I personally held the flag, I never realized the one holding the flag could not put their hand over their heart. I enjoyed having my hand over my heart. It was an unconscious reminder that there was so much within me.
At the time, no one was aware that I would be the last one in our class to be the standard bearer for the flag. The next day we would not say the Pledge of Allegiance. We had been pledging allegiance to a country that did not pledge back. When we finally resumed the pledge, we did so to a flag that stood limp on a pole in the corner, with no bearer or color guards. Doubt clung to it, as well as to the nation.
Mrs. Kidman allowed me to stay after class so I could make my mother a birthday card using school supplies. I knew enough lettering to write “Happy Birthday” in cursive with glue on red art paper. Then I scattered glitter on the glue. I was almost literate when I wrote in glue and glitter. To make up for the time lost from crafting the birthday card, I ran home as fast as I could.
Peanut and Gwen were already sitting at our dining room table watching TV. At the time, there were only three primary channels for 200 million people. Therefore, TV was segmented by age and gender. It conformed to social norms, as well as reinforced them. It was an unofficial clock that regulated our lives. During the week, early morning belonged to children. Late morning to early afternoon programming was geared toward women. Children were allotted another hour or so in the late afternoon. News was shown after men got home from work, in case the women folk and children needed calming after seeing something tragic on the news. Prime time was for everyone. From 9 o’clock until the national anthem played was for adults. There was nothing on TV for insomniacs until 6 o’clock in the morning.
Early April had borrowed some warmth from late May. The weather was too nice to watch TV. Shortly after giving my mother her birthday card, I abandoned my one hour of TV to play outside. I was not joined by my sisters and other children until the afternoon cartoons were over. Normally we played outside until 5:30, which was our normal dinner time. But dinner was going to be an hour late today; therefore, Gwen, Peanut and I stayed out to play with the children who ate dinner after 6 o’clock or ate no dinner at all.
Finally, our mother summoned us to a Sunday dinner served on a Thursday. During the week, most of our dinners came from the top of the stove. On weekends, much of it came from the oven: biscuits, cakes and roasts. If we had salad, it would usually be on a Sunday. The salad bowl sitting on the table clashed with a school day. They rarely crossed paths during the week. Fortunately, there were no disagreeable vegetables on the table. Tonight, there was nothing we would have to be bribed to eat. Some nights we had dessert only if we ate what we hated: stewed tomatoes or liver for me, overcooked canned spinach for Gwen and Peanut. Tonight, was a celebration; we each would get a piece of cake without a standoff.
The news was on at my insistence. I wanted to see news footage of the Apollo Six launch from that morning. Between bites of ham and mashed potatoes, I watched the clip of a pillar of fire pushing a metal needle into space. Though awe inspiring, I wondered when America’s technology was going to catch up to the space shows on TV. But the overriding question soon would be, when would America catch up to its constitution?
After watching the launch, the news faded into the background, and we enjoyed a leisurely dinner. When we finished, my sisters and I helped clear the dishes from the table, more to hasten the eating of cake than to ease our mother’s burden. Although it was her 25th birthday, there were only 12 candles on her cake. We only had a box of 12 and had to imagine the other 13. Our stepfather lit the candles and turned off the lights. Fire and icing adorned the center of our table. Lights from the TV briefly bickered with those from the candles. We sang happy birthday and my mother blew out the candles. Before he could turn on the lights again, something on the TV caught my stepfather’s attention. Instead of turning on the lights again he turned up the volume. We sat in the dark, with the scent of burnt candles and chocolate cake teasing our noses as we listened to Walter Cronkite announce the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. At 7 o’clock in the morning, America had sent a rocket into space higher than ever before. By 7 o’clock that evening, America had assassinated the youngest person to ever receive a Nobel Peace prize.
We listened to the entire announcement sitting in the dark. After hearing that a light had gone out in the world, my stepfather turned the lights back on, but it did nothing to brighten the room. Both of my parents had sad, concerned expressions on their faces. My mother’s expression had a tinge of guilt as well, almost as if she had blown out a life when she blew out her candles. Years later, she mentioned that, although fleeting, the thought did indeed cross her mind. But I was more concerned with the reaction of my stepfather. At first, I thought this would be another reason to beat us, but his expression was wrong, and I was sure he didn’t know Martin Luther King Jr. He alleviated my fears by hugging all of us and telling our mother to give us extra cake.
Eating birthday cake on a death day somehow felt wrong, but the confection was a distraction. Our stepfather wanted to make some phone calls he probably didn’t want us privy to. Although the phone was in the living room, it was no more than 12 feet from the dining room table. We could hear anything we wanted to. Normally we either were given distractions as earplugs or told to go outside or upstairs. Just as he touched the phone to make his calls, it rang.
As soon as he hung up, another phone call came in. When the rings paused long enough, he would dial someone else. My cake lasted through two calls. Then my sisters and I paid attention, whether we wanted to or not. The conversations were worried, sad and a bit angry. One of the calls came from my mother’s co-worker. She ended the call by consoling the woman on the other end of the line, then angrily slammed the phone down.
My stepfather visibly flinched from the uncharacteristic display of anger and asked her, “What is wrong?”
She hissed, “Maxine said that some of the white people at work outright cheered at the news of the assassination, and a few are walking around with barely hidden smiles. I am so glad I am not going to work tonight. I just don’t have it in me to fake a smile for white people tonight.”
I was caught off guard by two things: the venom in her voice directed toward white people, and the fact that they would laugh or smile because someone had been killed. She had never said anything derogatory about white people before. My few interactions with them had been pleasant or neutral. Like many mothers, she hid from us the overt forms of racism as long as she could. She was always polite to white people, but the overriding reaction was that they were a nuisance to be avoided whenever possible. The fact that some had laughed or smiled at an assassination implied they were far more than a nuisance.
At the time, Martin Luther King Jr., was not a member of the pantheon of great Americans. Mostly revered today, he was anything but prior to his death. The vast majority of heedless white Americans either disapproved of him or outright hated him. Though still widely respected among his own people, younger black people thought of him as well-meaning but antiquated. He knocked politely at the door for civil rights, while they wanted to kick the door down.
Younger folks had grown tired of listening to white men on national TV debasing their own humanity by debating ours. Politicians prattled on about how great our country was for being able to debate the equality of human beings. Those being debated about felt it was a disgrace that it was a question at all. Some Southern senators told their constituency that someday the Negro would be equal to the likes of them, but not today. All of those old enough to have an opinion felt that being the equals to such men would have been a downgrade for most of us.
Slowly over the last hundred years, the descendants of slaves were replacing the cotton bales on their shoulders with pride, dignity and self-respect. Most white Americans would interpret it as a chip on our shoulders. Their barbaric behavior toward us was a figment of our imagination. Heavier than any bale of cotton, they projected the worst of their behavior onto our shoulders. We were the uncivilized ones, not they. Not pleased with their reflection, they brutally beat the mirror. Eventually it broke, and the shards cut their fists, and they hated the mirror more, but now they feared it as well. This was the dilemma of black people in America; our very existence reminded white Americans they are not who they say they are.
I had only been 9 years old for a week and knew next to nothing about geography or politics, and vaguely remember when I had thought JFK was president of Ohio. I thought I knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was and believed back then that he was the president of black America, but we were still called Negroes or worse at the time. Four days before the assassination, the white president, Lyndon B. Johnson, had announced that he would not run for president again. Naively, I thought maybe we could elect a president together and unite. Even at 9 years old, it was clear to me that we were two separate nations. The borders were unclear on paper, but in the collective mind they were well defined. In the coming days, I was shocked to learn that we were supposedly one nation under God, because we sure didn’t act like it.
Excerpted from the book Dancing to the Lyrics, with permission. Copyright 2020, Dwayne Ratleff.