Open Thread: Remembering E. Lynn Harris

by Latoya Peterson

From the New York Times obituary:

E. Lynn Harris, whose novels about successful and glamorous black men with sexual identity conflicts (and the women and men who love them) made him one of the nation’s most popular writers, died in Los Angeles on Thursday. He was 54 and lived in Atlanta. [...]

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.

Mr. Harris, who was openly gay but who lived for many years in denial or shame or both over that fact, was able to draw on his own experiences to make credible the emotional conflicts of his characters, and his readers, many of them women, were drawn to his books because they addressed issues that were often surreptitiously pertinent to their own lives.

There’s also a good article on The Root:

He’d be the first to tell you that he was no literary stylist, no turner of sweet phrases, but he knew how to tell tales, tales that people wanted to read. There’s a reason Harris, who died Friday of an apparent heart attack, was a 10-time New York Times best-seller; his writing struck a deep, resonant chord. He may have been a gay black man writing about other gay black men, but he also wrote about black women, straight black women, with sensitivity and often with glowing admiration. Sisters returned the favor, lining up in droves to buy his books, becoming his biggest fans.

From the beginning, when he first self-published Invisible Life in 1994—it would later be picked up by Doubleday—Harris made it OK for black folks to talk about gay issues, from the beauty parlor to the barbershop. His gay male characters were macho men who just happened to love other macho men: football players, basketball players, highly paid executives. Churchgoing folk. He normalized gay life for a community that’s long been in denial about the non-straight folks in the family, and in the process, launched a genre of black gay literature. Publishers looked at the extraordinary selling power of his books, and looked at other black writers—straight or gay—and saw gold in them thar hills.

“His writing, and his incredible mainstream success, encouraged a league of black gay and lesbian writers to follow in his footsteps,” says Lisa C. Moore, the publisher of the black lesbian publishing house, Redbone Press. “His words helped make black gay life accessible and worthy of open discussion to black readers, gay and straight—something much, much needed in black communities. I am grateful to him for opening those doors. He definitely made a powerful impact on the publishing business for black gay folks.”