To read an E. Lynn Harris novel was to eavesdrop on the lives of the young, black and fabulous. The, young, black, conflicted and fabulous, that is: Harris made a name for himself chronicling the lives of the beautiful and the buff, men living on the down low, having lots of hot, tormented sex while wearing designer duds and generally living the glamorous life.
He’d be the first to tell you that he was no literary stylist, no turner of sweet phrases, but he knew how to tell tales, tales that people wanted to read. There’s a reason Harris, who died Friday of an apparent heart attack, was a 10-time New York Times best-seller; his writing struck a deep, resonant chord. He may have been a gay black man writing about other gay black men, but he also wrote about black women, straight black women, with sensitivity and often with glowing admiration. Sisters returned the favor, lining up in droves to buy his books, becoming his biggest fans.
From the beginning, when he first self-published Invisible Life in 1994—it would later be picked up by Doubleday—Harris made it OK for black folks to talk about gay issues, from the beauty parlor to the barbershop. His gay male characters were macho men who just happened to love other macho men: football players, basketball players, highly paid executives. Churchgoing folk. He normalized gay life for a community that’s long been in denial about the non-straight folks in the family, and in the process, launched a genre of black gay literature. Publishers looked at the extraordinary selling power of his books, and looked at other black writers—straight or gay—and saw gold in them thar hills.
“His writing, and his incredible mainstream success, encouraged a league of black gay and lesbian writers to follow in his footsteps,” says Lisa C. Moore, the publisher of the black lesbian publishing house, Redbone Press. “His words helped make black gay life accessible and worthy of open discussion to black readers, gay and straight—something much, much needed in black communities. I am grateful to him for opening those doors. He definitely made a powerful impact on the publishing business for black gay folks.”
He wasn’t the most likely suspect for changing the face of black gay literature—and indeed, he always seemed a little stunned at his overwhelming success. While his characters lived pampered lives, his upbringing was anything but pampered. A Flint, Mich., native, he grew up in Arkansas, and attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he became the first black male cheerleader. After graduation, he worked for a decade as a computer salesman for IBM. He quit his job to write Invisible Life, and when no publisher would have him, he published it himself, peddling his book out of the trunk of his car.
He aspired to be like his characters, and through his writing, he eventually lived their lives, too: the multiple homes, the posh penthouse apartments. But he kept it real, mentoring other writers, doing community work and semi-adopting two young boys. (He was on tour for his latest book, Basketball Jones, his 11th novel, at the time of his death.)
He was an avowed football fan, but he also had a thing for theater, loved the greasepaint, the drama, all of it. “It’s like magic to me,” he told me when I interviewed him 10 years ago for the Chicago Tribune, “Nothing pumps me up like a Broadway overture or a school fight song. Football and theater.” And in particular, he loved Dreamgirls, a musical which made frequent appearances in his novels. He saw it over 100 times, eternally obsessed with the Dreamgirls’ rise from poverty to stardom.
“I love those pull-up-by-your-bootstraps stories. That's a part of my life,” he told me.
But he never felt the temptation to take to the stage, though his book tours often felt like performance. “I remember I did a reading once,” he told me, “and when I came out on stage they gave me a standing ovation. I felt like a Broadway star. I was actually taking bows. I was close to tears.”
“I wish that everyone I ever met would have a standing ovation in their life, just once.”
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.