Monday, June 20, 2016

Pride Month Profile: E. Lynn Harris, whose success was anything but on the down low.

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Everette Lynn Harris (1955-2009)

When Everette Jeter was three, his mother married a man called Ben Harris. The boy got not only his stepfather’s surname, but his anger and abuse. Harris thought the boy was a sissy and subscribed to the popular view that beatings would drive it out and toughen him up.

His mother divorced Harris after ten years. Her son graduated high school and helped integrate life at the University of Arkansas, which- when not fighting integration- interpreted the Supreme Court’s order, “with all deliberate speed,” in geological terms.

Harris found himself- a part, at least- in college. He was his fraternity’s chapter president; the first black yearbook editor; and the university’s first black male cheerleader.

He took a job selling computers and moved through successively better-paying gigs at IBM, AT&T, and HP. By 1990, Harris was successful, well-to-do, drinking heavily, and so miserable he attempted suicide.

Failing at that, he quit his job, moved to Atlanta, and wrote a novel about a successful African-American man torn between women’s attraction to him and his attraction to other men. He was inspired by chance encounter seven years earlier: meeting the author Maya Angelou at a corporate sales meeting, he recalled, “she told me I should write something every day," Mr. Harris said, "even if it was just one word."

He couldn’t find a publisher interested in Invisible Life, so he self-published, loaded his trunk with copies, and hit the road around Atlanta. He peddled it to reading clubs, in beauty parlors and barber shops. He sold ten thousand copies on his own, and word of mouth wielded its power: Essence magazine named "Invisible Life" one of the 10 best books of the year, and it drew comparisons with Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and James Baldwin's "Another Country,” the Washington Post reported:
Most of Mr. Harris's central characters were gay or bisexual black men, and his novels were typically set in the upper echelons of black society, including sports, churches and the law. His most dedicated readers were black women, who flocked to his readings across the country by the hundreds, often bringing him flowers and food. 
Mr. Harris, who began his career as a computer salesman, remained somewhat mystified by his success, since his provocative subject matter had long been ignored or driven underground in African American culture. 
"If you were African American and you were gay, you kept your mouth shut and you went on and did what everybody else did," he said last year in an interview with the Associated Press. "You had girlfriends, you lived a life that your parents had dreamed for you."

Waiting to pitch the book to an Atlanta bookstore manager, Harris struck up a conversation with a woman who worked there. What you need, she told him, is an agent. She gave him the name of one in New York; the agent liked the book. He sold it to Anchor as a trade paperback, and, as author E. Lynn Harris, he became famous virtually overnight. In 2001, he signed a three-book deal for $8 million.

The New York Times wrote of his’ works,

Mr. Harris clearly tapped a rich vein of reader interest with his racy and sometimes graphic tales of affluent, ambitious, powerful black men — athletes, businessmen, lawyers and the like — who nonetheless struggled with their attraction to both men and women. His books married the superficial glamour of jet-setting potboilers with an emotional candor that shed light on a segment of society that had received little attention: black men on the down low — that is, men who are publicly heterosexual but secretly have sex with men.

“On the down low” and “the DL” remain universally-known terms in American discourse to this day.

Harris published ten more books, each one a New York Times bestseller. He became one of the most successful African-American writers of his time, and by far the most successful openly gay one. When he died, over four million copies of his books were in print.

He fretted that he was not a “serious writer” the way James Baldwin, another gay black man, had been, and his friends and readers told him just to hush. His books opened a conversation in the African-American community that had been too-long suppressed and carries on, in fits and starts, to this day. The arc of the story line for Jamal Lyon, a character in the Fox TV series “Empire”, is straight out of the Harris playbook.

Always reticent about his personal life, Harris stayed on the move between several homes, the University of Arkansas stayed close to his heart. He taught creative writing there, and occasionally guest-coached the cheerleading team. In 2001, he appeared on Broadway as narrator of the musical "Dreamgirls." Harris also established a foundation to benefit young writers.

On a 2009 business trip to California, Harris collapsed on a train, chalked it up to fatigue, and carried on. Several days later, suffered a heart attack and died in his Los Angeles hotel.

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