Correction to This Article
An earlier version of the article posted online indicated that author E. Lynn Harris wrote "Invisible Man" instead of "Invisible Life." This version of the story credits Harris with writing "Invisible Life" instead of the book by Ralph Ellison.

Essay: Author E. Lynn Harris's Urban Love Stories Opened One Man's Eyes

By L.L. Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009; 10:36 PM

Everette Lynn Harris's words have always haunted me.

When I sneaked "Invisible Life" and "Just as I Am," his first two novels, into my bedroom one summer in my late teens, I had no idea what a wonderful change would come over me.

Somehow, his tale of a young black man coming to understand his innate need for the love of another black man shook me to my core. Somehow, I could no longer stay silent to protect myself from the steady questions and jeers I received about my budding sexuality. Somehow, after "seeing" lawyer Raymond Winston Tyler Jr. wooed by pro-football player John "Basil" Henderson, I couldn't squelch my hope in my own happily ever after.

Lord knows I tried. Like Arkansas-bred Harris, who died late Thursday while on a promotional tour stop in Beverly Hills, Calif., I was a child of the Deep South and had become well versed in the Bible Belt's special blend of homophobia. But Raymond and Basil's tumultuous love affair, detailed in subsequent novels, resonated in ways I couldn't ignore. The eager Raymond and the elusive, bisexual Basil kept me and millions of other readers hungry for more in the 11 novels Harris published in the past 18 years, even as his rising success led him to tell the stories of other characters struggling to keep their feet planted in two worlds: the straight, middle-class one in which they were expected to thrive and the same-gender-loving one they too often felt compelled to keep secret, or "on the down low."

Harris mined that struggle time after time through the preachers, singers, athletes, doctors, lawyers and, yes, journalists he crafted in his works. He also captured, with great aplomb, the voices and experiences of the women in these conflicted men's lives. His affinity for the fashion-savvy, sassy diva earned him a loyal following not only among same-sex-loving men but heterosexual and lesbian women as well.

Harris knew a little something about divas. No one could work a Patti LaBelle, Luther Vandross or Whitney Houston song into a love scene better than he did. Along with close friend Terry McMillan, Eric Jerome Dickey, Howard University alum Omar Tyree and others, Harris was a leader in the mid-1990s movement that would usher in the urban romance genre that now dominates the popular African American fiction market.

Like his peers, Harris unburdened himself of the pressure to create what critics might consider "high art" like that of predecessors James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, who had paved the way for them in the industry. But his novels' themes were in no way limited to love and sex. His works explored the sexism and ageism that young black professionals face in corporate America and the havoc HIV/AIDS was wreaking in black communities long before it made the mainstream networks' evening news programs.

Harris knew what his fans wanted, and he gave it to them unabashedly. (Ten of his novels were New York Times bestsellers. A 12th novel, "Mama Dearest," was to be released in October.) This was a man who never seemed to forget the days he'd spent selling an earlier self-published incarnation of "Invisible Life" from the trunk of his car at Atlanta beauty salons before Valerie Boyd, then an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor, championed the masterwork.

I was fortunate to see his love of his fans up close last year at a reading at Virginia Tech, where I'm a graduate student and instructor. I must admit that, as I'd ventured deeper into academia in the past decade, I'd begun to step away from Harris's tales. I'd begun to join the critics who said he was feeding America's obsession with the closeted man.

I came to the reading poised with a zinger -- Why the obsession with the "DL brotha"? Where were the compelling love stories that had enchanted me years ago?

The always nattily dressed Southern gentleman didn't flinch. He flashed his signature toothy, warm smile and responded in a most gracious way. He was unflappable and erudite about his approach to his craft and his desire to reach as many in his diverse demographic as he could with each of his books. Then, he invited me to a nearby reception where he asked me about my poetry and took pictures with every person in the room who asked. Harris always gave liberally to fans and young writers alike.

As I drove home that night, the words I'd forgotten came back, and I was that man-child curled up in bed with his book again.

"There is something poetic about falling in love," Harris writes in the beginning of "Invisible Life." "The tingling sensation lingers like the lyrical words of a Langston Hughes poem . . . "

Like Hughes, Baldwin, Essex Hemphill and countless others who dared to write down their truths in a world not yet ready to hear them, E. Lynn Harris's words still haunt me. They've helped me find my way to the truest, deepest love -- the love of self.


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