A world without E. Lynn Harris (1955-2009)

Last week best-selling fiction writer E. Lynn Harris died at the age of 54. Harris’s closeted and openly gay black characters paved the way for a new and vibrant genre of popular literature with widespread appeal. Personally, Harris was a kind and generous man who sought to encourage and support other gay black writers, including E. Patrick Johnson, author of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, which UNC Press published last fall. In the following guest post, Johnson remembers Harris and the legacy he leaves in his wake.–ellen

The world has certainly changed since E. Lynn Harris self-published his first novel, Invisible Life, in 1991. Back then, gay marriage was unthinkable and the idea of an African American president was not fathomable. Slowly but surely, however, the past 18 years have seen barrier after barrier to equality and acceptance crumble. The phenomenon that became E. Lynn Harris was partly responsible for that shift.

Having written Invisible Life in the late 1980s and selling it out of the trunk of his car because he could not find a publisher, Harris was never deterred by the homophobia and racism that he met in the publishing industry. He knew that there was a market for his work and he was determined to reach the masses through characters such as Raymond, Nicole, Basil, and Yancey. And yet, I don’t think even Harris himself expected his work to become the success it did.

It was not just that Harris portrayed black bi- and homosexuals for the first time (James Baldwin had done so years before); rather, it was the first time an author wrote about these topics in a way that reached the masses: the characters were black, middle class, educated, “bubbies” who still had connections to their working class roots; and, Harris’ literary style was not bogged down with metaphor or symbolic obfuscation. And although sexuality is the common theme that runs throughout the novels, it is only one component of larger questions about honesty—to others and oneself—commitment, HIV/AIDS, religion, careerism, fame, and fortune.

Black heterosexual women and black gay and “down low” men across the country became the main audience for these books for a number of reasons: as a way to determine if a man was cheating with another man, to work through confusion about one’s sexuality, or for affirmation. Whatever the reasons, for the first time in a very long time, black folks were talking about sexuality in public. And, over time, as Harris himself became more and more comfortable with being open about his sexuality and his characters became more affirming, the reading audiences also became more accepting or at least tolerant, of sexual nonconformity.

While other black academics and I often dismissed Harris’s novels as “pop” literature, we, too, secretly purchased these novels in anticipation of Basil Henderson’s next conquest. We also had to acknowledge that Harris’s novels paved the way for those of us who work on black gender and sexuality to present our work in venues where we were not always welcomed or invited, such as mainstream bookstores. And on a more personal note, Harris graciously blurbed my book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—An Oral History, and included it on his list of his favorite books of all times. Regrettably, I never got the opportunity to personally thank him.

I met E. Lynn Harris only once—at the Regulator Bookstore on Ninth Street in Durham. It was like being at a revival. The standing-room-only audience swooned and swayed to every word out of his mouth. During the Q & A, I asked him why he killed off the character Kyle in Just As I Am, a character who, to my mind, was one of the only gay-affirming characters in the novel. His response was, “That’s life. We all have to die. It was just Kyle’s time.” That response seems prophetic now. But, like the character Kyle, who, while he lived brought love, joy, and humor to all of those around him, E. Lynn Harris and his work touched the lives of so many folks who will remember him and his characters for years to come.

E. Patrick Johnson
Northwestern University