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E. Lynn Harris


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(1955–2009), novelist.

Developing a Black male homosexual canon empowered E. Lynn Harris to testify to his experiences and spark conversation on an often taboo topic. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the integrationist period, Harris discovered that interracial interaction could be natural and easy, but it also made him realize that Little Rock represented a minute part of the world. His desire to broaden his narrow perspective caused him to dream; through frequent trips to the Little Rock public library, he developed an active imagination that spurred his quest to move beyond Little Rock.

Harris was born in Flint, Michigan, the oldest of four children (he has three sisters). Raised by a single mother, he was taken to Little Rock at the age of three and attended the Little Rock public schools. His interest in writing emerged in the ninth grade when, despite bad grades, he was picked for the newspaper staff. It was the first time that he had to write something, and when his first effort was accepted, he was stunned but inspired.

Harris pursued his education and exploration of the intellect as he escaped from Little Rock. He graduated with honors and a BA in journalism from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1977. He then attended Southern Methodist's Cox School of Business part-time and was recruited by IBM as a computer salesman. In 1990, however, Harris decided to become a professional writer even though the only writing connection he had had since ninth grade was working on the college yearbook, where he preferred managing to editing. So he moved from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta to try to focus more on writing. James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) mesmerized Harris and inspired him to write. He was particularly impressed with Baldwin's role in the creation of the much-needed Black gay male canon. He also admired the works of Tina McElroy Ansa, Bebe Moore Campbell, and Terry McMillan, but his main developmental influence was his mother, not his literary mentors.

His mother does not mirror any of the characters in his books, but she instilled in Harris a preference for goodness, decency, and self-love that shines through his literature. Not only did he recreate the images of Black males and gay males in literature, but Harris refused to disrespect or devalue Black women in his novels. Through the influence of his mother and his sisters, as well as his extended family, Harris refused to conceive of Black women as failures or victims. He witnessed his mother leaving an abusive marriage with four children and providing her children with love and opportunity. Harris was also proud of the fact that his late grandmother, a domestic, represented the “seed” to forty-four grandchildren who have never been in jail or on drugs and who range in occupation from professional writers to lawyers.

The needs to be honest to and to testify to his own story through literature remained Harris's primary concerns. His writing represented complete honesty about Black male sexuality for heterosexual and homosexual men. He regarded these men as complex and more fearful of showing their feelings than other groups. He does not classify Black male sexuality as an issue because men want to be sensitive and honest with their feelings but they do not know how. He worked through these issues in his eleven published novels.


Subjects: Literature

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