E. Lynn Harris (1955-2009) was an African American writer whose fiction works featured stories about gay and bisexual African American men trying to come to terms with their sexuality. He began publishing his work in the 1990s, a time when homosexuality was still a rather “taboo” topic of discussion in the United States, particularly within the African American community. Harris’s work attracted a huge and diverse following, and ten of his books became New York Times bestsellers. He was known not only for his literary talent, but for the warm attention he paid to his fans and for his enthusiastic support of fellow writers. His name was one of the first 50 to be included on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor. He died in 2009 at the age of 54.
Harris had a tremendous influence on me as a writer and as a human being. Today would have been his 65th birthday. I wrote this letter as a tribute to him.
June 20, 2020
Forgive me for writing to you like I know you. I want to know you – does that count? It’s too late, I know – you’re dead. That sucks. I remember when I read about your passing. You were 54 years old. Fifty-four. Too damn young. I think I read about it in Jet magazine. I seem to recall a tiny little black-and-white photo of you above an obituary on one of the short rectangular pages. I just kept looking at your picture and your big smile and your age and wondering what had happened. At some point, either while reading the magazine or later on, I learned that you had had a heart attack. Damn. Just like my granddaddy. Why do fly black men like y’all always end up having heart attacks? I know the answers to that – the scientific one and the social-determinants-of-health one – but knowing does not solve anything. You and my granddaddy are still dead. And I’m still mad about it. And sad.
I don’t want to talk about that now, though. I just found you – on the Internet! It was great seeing you alive on YouTube for a little while. Twenty-four minutes and 35 seconds, to be precise. You looked just like your picture, almost, just a little thinner in the face. You were at an LGBT bookstore in Atlanta called Outwrite Books, talking up your novel, Just Too Good to Be True. I never read that one, unfortunately. I read your earlier books, though. Invisible Life, Just As I Am, If This World Were Mine, Abide with Me. Wait, did I read both of those last two, or just one? It’s been a minute – I can’t remember. But I loved every one I read.
I never thanked you for those books, but I should have. I should have written you a thank you note while you were still alive. Thank you. Thank you so much for those books, for telling the world that there is nothing bad, sick, and strange about being gay or bisexual. Your books were so good, so fun, so heartbreaking, so real. And unapologetic. And full of love, not just sex, though there was plenty of that as well. I love how you celebrated sex and sexuality as something to cherish and not be ashamed of.
Invisible Life and Just as I Am were the bomb. Yes, I’m still using that old-school slang (laugh). Basil Henderson was one of the best hot-mess characters ever. Your books were an education for me. I never even knew about the term “down low” until I started reading them. I was so naive then, about so many things.
You were a big inspiration to me. I love how you didn’t let publishing company rejection stop you, how you just went ahead and published your first book on your own and sold the copies out of your car. I thought about that when I was selling my own book years later. I know you went through some tough times for a while. Thank you for not giving up on yourself. Thank you for giving your readers so much of yourself.
Until I watched the YouTube video, I had no idea you had taught at the University of Arkansas or that you enjoyed teaching. I would have loved to have taken a course with you. I heard you say you let your students read your books out loud in class. Wow. I’ll bet there was some deep blushing going on in that classroom! Or maybe not. That was a younger generation than mine, so they probably had fewer hangups.
Another thing you said that surprised me was that you used to judge Miss America preliminaries. You asked one 18-year-old contestant the question, if she had to choose between interracial marriage and gay marriage, which one would she choose? She replied that her generation would be fine with either one. You said that those words gave you hope.
Well, in case you don’t already know, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. And on Monday of this week, they ruled that LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Big changes. Stand next to the LGBTQ pioneers in the afterlife and take your share of the credit.
I’m still watching you in this video. You are really working this crowd at the bookstore. I never knew you were so funny. “I’ve always liked a good cuss word every now and then,” you say. Funny, funny. I wish I could have hung out with you, for just a few minutes, just to hear your voice and your laugh up close.
Today is your 65th birthday. I bet you would have made a good 65. What message do you have for me – for us – now, in the middle of all these protests over police brutality and racism? Did you see all this coming? I wonder what kind of stories you would be writing if you were still here among us.
You are telling the bookstore audience to close their own books and listen to you read from Just Too Good To Be True. I’ve never read the book, but I can hear and feel those characters speaking through you, in black vernacular. You had so much talent, so much life, so much soul. When you died, we lost so much. So much.
I am going to stop now so that I can remember you just like this, alive and looking happy, doing what you love. Happy Birthday, E. Lynn! Make it a good one. I miss you down here.