Friday, July 24, 2009

Remembering E. Lynn Harris

E. Lynn HarrisToday on the CC list, I saw a message from Major Jackson announcing that writer E. Lynn Harris had passed away, at age 54. I couldn't believe it, so I clicked on the link, from an Arkansas newssite, which verified that while attending a book tour-related event in Los Angeles, he had fallen ill. The very brief obit focused on his Arkansas Razorback ties--he was a huge fan of his alma mater's teams--in the course mentioning that he was a highly successful who "delved into black gay culture." That is certainly an understatement, because Harris is easily the best-known and best-selling writer treating aspects of black gay and bi male life of all time. He has also been a tremendous inspiration to countless writers because of his career trajectory, his determination, his countless kind acts and gestures behind the scenes, and his always striving to improve his work, make it accessible, and reach his fans. I mention all of these aspects of his life and work because so often nowadays when I encounter people who want to be writers, their first two or three questions hinge on graduate writing programs and how to get book deals. E. Lynn's career, however, showed people that there was another way--perhaps the old way, and maybe not so viable anymore--that I don't think anyone should ever discount.

C. and I first met Harris back in 1991 when he was selling his first book, Invisible Life, from the trunk of his car, and he gave a reading at, of all places, Harvard Law School. Keith Boykin probably told us about; he may even have set the reading up. We went and enjoyed not only the reading but the discussion afterwards, during which Harris expressed some of his difficulties and disappointments about living as an out gay man, finding love, and so much more. I wasn't sure if he was going to keep at it, given the downcast nature of some of his comments, but thankfully for the world he didn't give up, however; instead, he continued to sell his books and to self-publish them, until his books were picked up by a major publisher, a shift that prefigured the turn by the major publishers to a wide array of black popular fiction, including black urban literature of all types, which can now be found both online and in bookstores all over the country. As he continued to publish his work, he was always working to strengthen it; I would say that Harris became a master at what he did, and his legions of fans, mostly women, attest to this. You don't sell 4 million copies without doing something right.

But it's what he wrote about that I think is especially important. From his first book to his last, he repeatedly treated the lives of middle-class and upper-middle class (and sometimes working-class) black gay, bisexual and straight people, with real wit, verve, and assurance, demonstrating a deepening skill for compelling plotting and narrative drama. His characters and scenarios are grounded in a black--and multiracial, of course--milieu that millions of readers, black and otherwise, could identify with. So many aspects of our contemporary world appeared in his books, and from Invisible Life on, they have assumed a life of their own. For many people, he has become the black gay male author, and has worn that mantle impressively.

The title of that first book is now highly ironic, because the lives E. Lynn Harris portrayed are far less invisible than ever. While black queer people are still underrepresented in the black and gay mainstreams, Harris's work helped to open up an ongoing discussion about the complexity of black queer male lives among the black community. Terms like "down low," "on the low," and "undercover," as well as the mundane experience sof black queer men, which he animated so vividly through his characters and narratives, are now not only part of the public discourse but grist for academic debates and studies. We may, sadly, still be surprised if a black professional athlete comes out of the closet--even post-Roy Simmons, John Amaechi, Sheryl Swoopes--but we can imagine a raft of scenarios, richly imagined, about that person's life and what it might look like thanks to Harris. Non-queer people also have gotten not just glimpses, but complete immersion in certain black queer worlds through his work. And any number of writers, as well as people in publishing, owe a debt to Harris both because of what he accomplished, thereby making their work possible, and because of the hand of friendship, both publicly and privately, that he extended. (He was also devoted to his legions of fans.) After that initial meeting, I only came across him a few other times, and he was always amiable and generous, but a few years ago he edited an anthology in which an early chapter of the novel I'm working on appears, and as always, his communication was friendly and professional.

It is always a tragedy to me when someone is taken from the world before her or his time. I feel that way about E. Lynn Harris. A native of Flint, Michigan, he grew up in Arkansas and attended the University of Arkansas. He was an IBM salesperson before he decided to write and hawk his first book. He went on to publish 11 novels, including this year's Basketball Jones, he also published an acclaimed, pain-filled but triumphant memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, and edited several anthologies. E. Lynn Harris, we will certainly miss you!


  1. Daniel Bruno Sanz would like to share his Huffington Post essay with you;
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    Here are the keyords in the essay:
    13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, 2012 Election, B.E.T., Barack Hussein Obama, Booker T. Washington, Bryant Park, Cipriani's, Colin Powell, Criminal Industrial Complex, Deb Slott, Do The Right Thing, Heidi Klum, Hip-Hop, Mark Penn, Melting Pot, Pink Elephant, Racism, Reconstruction, Robert Johnson, Seal, Segregation, Shelby Steele, Sidney Poiter, Sonia Sotomayor, Spike Lee, Tavis Smiley, Terrence Yang, The Dance Flick, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Virginia Davies, W.E.B. Dubois, Zero Mostel, Politics
    Prologue to Obama 2012
    We approach the future walking backwards, our gaze forever fixated on the past. Predicting the future is not a passive exercise; we invent it every day with our actions.
    I began the sketches for what would ultimately become Obama 2012 in March 2007, a month after Barack Obama declared his candidacy. I had spent much of the previous 18 months living abroad as an entrepreneur and statesman of sorts, and I was slightly out of touch with the pulse of life on the street in the United States. I learnt about Sen. Barack Obama’s Springfield, IL speech formally declaring his candidacy for president of the United States through one of the international cable news channels and thought how great it would be to have a fresh start after years of mediocrity in Washington and a plummeting reputation around the world.
    By September, after what seemed like raising a six-month-old child, my sketches had turned into Why the Democrats Will Win in 2008 the Road to an Obama White House. It was my answer to the burning question everyone had back in March: Can he really win? Actually, not everyone thought it was a question. For many people, including Mark Penn, director of the Clinton campaign, the answer was an easy “no way.” This strategic blunder made it that much easier for the Clinton campaign to be defeated. Then there were Black pundits like Shelby Steele, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, who came out with a 2007 book entitled A Bound Man, Why Obama Can't Win.
    Being Black did seem to be an automatic disqualification, but then why did someone need to write an entire book arguing what should have been patently obvious? Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell came to my mind and I remembered that he could have run for president in 1992 as a war hero. But Colin Powell was Ronald Reagan’s protégé and got a special pass on the race question. Black conservatives like Justice Thomas, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were careful to disassociate themselves from liberal thinkers and activists like Jesse Jackson, who lost, as expected, the 1984 and 1988 Democratic primaries. Ultimately, Colin Powell, in spite of all his honors, declined to run for president. His wife Alma feared for his safety. Common sense said that a candidate like Obama, for numerous insurmountable reasons, didn't stand a chance of winning the Democratic primary, let alone a general election in which 10% of the electorate is African American and Republicans controlled the White House for 20 of the preceding 28 years. But I decided that Obama's chances merited a closer examination. In it, I would bring to bear my gambling skills.

  2. Harris was not only a successful writer who turned "the low" into a personal genre, he was, like the author of the B-Boy Blues series, a confessor to both men and women (some of them prominent)who thought they had found someone who could really understand what they were going through. After "Invisible Life" there were more than a few midnight phone calls to "Father" Harris, who did keep the secrets - even when he used some of the minor details and the overarching sense of desperation his communicants felt as grist for his writing mill. Of course, he also had the awful experiences of his youth to drawn on, and he did. I met him, a few years ago, at an awards banquet where he was receiving a prize. I spoke to him of Hoyt Fuller - about whom he knew nothing - and the invisibility of "Black World" magazine. He listened with what seemed to me real interest. I have a snapshot of him with Brian Baker and Lisa Moore. Someone took one of him with me, but I don't know where it is at the moment. By the time of that award banquet, he was that rarest of all birds, a millionaire black author, and most of his personal ghosts seemed to have been laid. He deserved his success. He died still pursuing his dream and he died much, much too young. The secrets he shared died with him. Unless,of course,he kept notes . . . pardon me, but I feel a novel coming on.

  3. On the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, essayist Daniel Bruno Sanz has written a unique piece about the nuclear arms race and the Black experience on film:

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    5ive, Adolf Hitler, African-American Poetry, Al-Queda, Albert Einstein, Arch Oboler, Carl Sagan, Charles Bronson, Charles Lampkin, Cosmos, Douglass Macarthur, Elizabeth Montgomery, Emperor Hirohito, Enrico Fermi, Fahrenhei 451, Fat Man, Five, Francois Truffaut, Frank Lloyd Wright, Genesis, Gyokuon-Hoso, H.G. Welles, Harry Truman, Hiroshima, James Anderson, James Weldon Johnson, Julius Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, Lavrentii Beria, Leo Szilard, Lord Of The Flies, Los Ultimos Cinco, Manchuria, Manhattan Project, Mao Tse-Tung, Martini Movies, Mokusatsu, Mulholland Highway, Nagasaki, Nietzsche, North Korea, Nuclear Holocaust, On The Beach, Orson Welles, Pearl Harbor, Potsdam Declaration, Reagan, Red Army, Rod Serling, Schopenhauer, Semipalatinsk, Stalin, Stepin Fetchit, Suzuki Kantaro, Taliban, The Day After, The Day The World Ended, Twilight Zone, Uranium Fission, Variety Magazine, Will Smith, Wille Zur Macht, William Golding, William Phipps, Living News

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