In his novels, E. Lynn Harris never set out to reach literary highs: No lyrical turn of phrase a la Toni Morrison or profound character analysis found in the best of James Baldwin.
But his 11 novels, which delved into the lives of the young, rich, black and fabulous, had a huge impact not only on readers but the literary market.
Others before him, namely Terry McMillan, had written contemporary sexy tales about urban black men and women. But Harris, who died Friday of an apparent heart attack at age 54, made the New York Times best-seller list 10 times with stories that illuminated the closeted lives of gay black men. This was mostly uncharted territory when the Little Rock-raised author became a literary sensation in the mid '90s.
The popularity of his soap opera-like tales of successful, drop-dead gorgeous athletes and businessmen who slept with other men reached almost fever pitch among urban readers, particularly black women, his core audience.
Word of mouth largely spurred sales of Harris' books, which generated millions for his publisher Doubleday and sparked open dialogue about sexuality in the black community. Beauty shops, reading circles, even church pulpits were all abuzz about the “down low” culture that Harris normalized in his books. His gay characters weren't stereotypical holdovers from the disco era – no twirling, sashaying, Patti LaBelle-worshipping queens ostracized by their family and society at large. Harris' gay characters wore suits, talked and walked with much swagger and (gasp!) even slept with women. No other popular author had characterized black gay men in such a way, giving their lives nuance and texture.
Sure, it was all in the context of six-figure incomes and glamorous designer clothes. But their search for self and their conflicts with an intolerant community rang true.
Harris' jet-set characters didn't reflect his life. Born in Flint, Mich., he grew up in Little Rock in a working-class, single-parent household.
About eight years ago, at the height of Harris' popularity, I wrote a cover story on the author for the Arkansas Times. He and his immediate family refused requests for interviews. But in talking with folks who grew up or went to college with Harris, I gathered that he was mostly an outgoing personality but at times a bit aloof. He stood out as a student at the University of Arkansas, where he became the first black male cheerleader. After graduation, he worked for about a decade as a computer salesman for IBM. Harris made a handsome living but was unfulfilled. He eventually quit to pursue his dream of writing novels. His first, “Invisible Life,” was self-published in 1991. He sold copies out of the trunk of his car and peddled them in beauty parlors.
The hard work paid off some three years later when he landed a deal with Doubleday. The New York company published his 10 other novels, including “Basketball Jones,” which Harris was promoting on the West Coast when he suddenly died.
Never open about his personal life, the author seemingly lived like his characters in other ways. He became wealthy from his books. He owned multiple homes, traveled around the world and wore sharp, tailored suits. But he remained connected to his community: teaching writing classes and coaching cheerleaders at the University of Arkansas. Harris was always supportive of young writers. After I sent him a few short stories during my freshmen year at UA, he later sent me an encouraging note in which he promised to show my work to his agent. It never happened, but the note was a nice gesture nonetheless.
After Harris' success, stories by gay writers have received more serious consideration in the black community. Authors such as James Earl Hardy, Keith Boykin and the infamous J.L. King have found a wide readership thanks to the doors Harris opened. His impact on the publishing industry helped usher in gay publishing houses such as the Washington-based Redbone Press, operated by Lisa C. Moore.
I met Harris a few times when he visited the campus of UA, where I was a student between 1996 and 2000. In his lectures, he always spoke about following your dreams.
“Just don't give up,” he'd say.
Harris never did.
Rashod Ollison is the former pop music critic for the Baltimore Sun. A native of Little Rock, he's a free-lance arts journalist and liner notes writer living in Baltimore. Ernest Dumas, whose column normally appears here, took the week off.