Some have called him The Father of Urban Black Gay Literature, and rightly so! And as any good father would, he inspired dreams, opened the doors, and directed the path for those who would follow in his footsteps. Today, author E. Lynn Harris passed the torch forever to those many, many brothers, sons (and daughters) who yet marveled that God would make a poet, a writer, or scribe black, gay and bid him sing. At the age of 54, Everette Lynn Harris passed away on the West Coast, while on the road promoting his latest novel, Basketball Jones. According to some reports, Mr. Harris suffered a "serious health setback" while on a West Coast book tour. Some say he'd recently complained about the stress of being on the road once again. He reportedly went into cardiac arrest at a restaurant in Beverly Hills thursday night. He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Hospital.
One source has posthumously stated that he was not a household name, but I beg to differ and the question then begs to be asked "whose house?." Mr. Harris was one trailblazin' brotha in the literary world. Ever since he was forced to sell his now classic break-out novel, Invisible Life, from the trunk of his car, and from beautyshop to beautyshop, the mold was set for independent black writers to come out, speak out, tell and sell their stories even when the major publishing houses wouldn't touch them. Some were later picked up as Harris had been (Doubleday) and some were even inspired to start their own publishing companies. (Along with the B-Boy Blues of James Earl Hardy) E. Lynn Harris's early novels (Invisible Life, Just As I Am, and And This Too Shall Pass) lit a fire in the soul of legions of black gay men burning to write, film, and even blog their stories. He was brother, friend and mentor to many. He opened the door for fellow brothas writing like Eric Jerome Dickey, Omar Tyree and Carl Weber. He personally helped or mentored blood-brothas like Maurice Jamal, Keith Boykin and Patrick Ian Polk. For the early support they showed him in the beauty shops, Harris spoke frequently of the debt that he owed black women, and freely expressed his affection in his eleven novels, which were successively tailored for them.
Harris's novels increasingly concerned themselves with "down-low" male entertainers and athletes like the legendary character, the "low-down" Basil Henderson, or the melodramatic, daytime soap-opera antics of diva Yancy Harrington. They were the bold and beautiful African American professionals from Atlanta to Hollywood to Broadway who propelled almost all of his novels onto the New York Times Best-Seller's List, making E. Lynn Harris one of the most popular, successful and wealthy African American novelists of all time. However, Mr. Harris wasn't without his detractors and critics. Some grew increasingly tired of what was described as the tawdry lives of the black A-listers, wishing he'd write more about the tawdry lives of more relatable "everyday folk". And some wished he'd fashion his stories to celebrate the lives of the black, more out-and-proud cross-section of his audience as opposed to the more devious and confused. Yet, E. Lynn Harris was a gifted storyteller from day one, and he grew to master that gift almost without equal.
His book signings inspired such a cross-section of fans from here to dare who said "I think I want to do this" to "I have the talent to do this and I'm going to" and they were standing-room-only events. I met Harris numerous times at these signings, and I have more of those snapshot kind of photos taken with him in bookstores (that so many others have) than I realized. But I did not know him. I did not communicate with him like a few other bloggers or writers that I've come to know. He did ask me to, but I did not. I do know he was generous to his fans, and very supportive of burgeoning writers. When I first heard the news of his passing, my mouth fell open in shock. Momentarily. Within the last weeks, I've dealt so much with the subject of death in one way or another that I was quickly reminded that dying is a part of living. We live and we die, but Harris's death for me is more sobering than shocking. "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" he asked in his autobiography named after the very sad and poignant Motown classic by Jimmy Ruffin. I personally think they either sink lower into despair, or they rise up and out of their muck and mire, and sometimes they're just able arrive at a place where it's not great but it's okay. Bearable! Harris told Essence magazine "I've overcome depression. I was physically abused by my stepfather, I was raised by a single mother. And I'm a member of a race that considers my sexuality inappropriate. But there's a message in my memoir for anyone who has suffered from lack of self-esteem or sought love in all the wrong places....for much of my adult life, I was not true to myself. I was pretending not to be gay. In the 1980's when I was a sales executive at IBM, I traveled a lot and made good money, but I wasn't happy. A few years later I felt so empty and confused that I finally reached out for professional help. Seeing a therapist gave me the strength to deal honestly with my sexuality. It also renewed my interst in writing. Now I'm truly happy. My life is filled with family, friends and work that I love".
He always struck me as a man on a mission, trying to get "it" done as quick as possible. E. Lynn Harris life stands as a testimony to always be true to self, and in addition to "doing you" it is also imperative that we "get it done" because tomorrow is not promised. For all of his many fans, followers, and friends, this is a very sad occassion. But I think the message is to live as if this world were ours, and not any way the wind blows. Think about it!