E. Lynn Harris broke barriers for black writers, gays

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News that best-selling author E. Lynn Harris had died at the age of 54 shocked his fans and friends. On tour promoting his latest novel, “Basketball Jones,” about the closeted relationship of an NBA player and his long-term boyfriend, Harris was reportedly in Los Angeles meeting with Tracey Edmonds, ex-wife of songwriter and singer Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds, about bringing one of his 11 novels to the big screen.

A pioneering voice of contemporary black gay life, Harris broke down many barriers. A former computer salesman who worked for IBM, AT&T and Hewlett-Packard, Harris self-published his first novel, “Invisible Life,” about an outwardly heterosexual attorney living a double life in 1991. He sold an estimated 10,000 copies out of his trunk at beauty salons and black bookstores before Anchor Books republished the book in 1994 and widely distributed it. That same year, Harris followed with another bestseller, “Just As I Am,” which depicted a man torn between two lovers – male and female – and helped pave the way for other self-published authors to secure mainstream publishing deals.

Much of Harris’s work hinged on the taboos, especially in the African American community, surrounding homosexuality. Mirroring real life, his leading male characters – often good-looking, highly educated and very accomplished, with a number appearing as hyper-sexed athletes – concealed their homosexual lifestyles to conform to societal norms that embraced only heterosexuality.

Long before J.L. King, author of the nonfiction book, “On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of ‘Straight’ Black Men Who Sleep With Women,” appeared on Oprah in 2004 to discuss his own “double-life,” Harris had already hipped his largely black female fan base to the “down-low” culture. Ironically, as Harris’s books were becoming bestsellers, girl group TLC and singer R. Kelly achieved platinum-selling hits with “Creep” and “Down-Low (Nobody Has To Know),” released in 1994 and 1996, respectively, describing the “down-low” as acts of heterosexual infidelity.

Shock value alone didn’t endear Harris to fans. He backed up his down-low tales with sympathetic characters who often struggled to realize who they really were, sexually and otherwise. Identity and sexuality were issues that Harris himself struggled with and, initially, as he participated in early book events, denied to his readers that he was also a homosexual. In his 2003 memoir, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” Harris detailed those struggles. Throughout much of his career, however, he realized his significance and power, and took up the torch as a prominent advocate for the African American gay community without losing his core fan base.

Labeled the “male Terry McMillan,” 10 of Harris’s 11 novels reached the New York Times Bestseller list. A tireless promoter, Harris began his career beating the pavement and personally connecting with his readers. He also encouraged other writers to pursue their dreams and even co-edited “Best African American Fiction: 2009,” released in early January, with Gerald Early.

A pioneer long before he hit the book circuit, Harris, born Everette Lynn Harris in Flint, Michigan on June 20, 1955, but raised in Arkansas, was the first African American yearbook editor and first African American male cheerleader at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where he had returned to teach for the last four years. As a college student, he also served as president of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha.

“His pioneering novels and powerful memoir about the black gay experience touched and inspired millions of lives, and he was a gifted storyteller whose books brought delight and encouragement to readers everywhere,” his longtime publisher, Doubleday, said in a statement. “Lynn was a warm and generous person, beloved by friends, fans, and booksellers alike, and we mourn his passing.”

With more than four million copies of his books in print, Harris showed no signs of letting up. Recently, he signed a deal with Karen Hunter Publishing, which is on pace to release his book “Mama Dearest” in October.

“He had so much impact,” said Max Rodriguez, founder and publisher of “The Quarterly Black Review of Books,” which Harris embraced early in his career.

“He was the right author at the right time – great stories, great writing, great song in his words; he spoke for us at the right time. In a time when the stars were aligning for us as black writers, he couldn’t have been the better person to stand for us.”