Harris, E. Lynn
E. Lynn Harris
Since the 1990s, E. Lynn Harris has reigned as one of the most popular U.S. novelists. Over the years, more than three million copies of his novels have been sold, and he is greeted at bookstore readings by long lines of fans. Harris has been acknowledged as the first African American male novelist to achieve the same level of success as African American female novelists who are his contemporaries.
Everett Lynn Harris was born in Flint, Michigan in 1955, but from the age of three, he was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas with his three sisters. Harris attended Bush Elementary School, received good grades, and dreamed of becoming a teacher. When his father, Ben Odis Harris, a sign painter and sanitation truck driver, caught an eleven-year-old E. Lynn playing school with neighborhood children on the Harris's front porch, he kicked all the books and fake report cards off the porch before asserting that only boys who were sissies wanted to teach. Ben Harris was both verbally and physically abusive to his wife, Etta Mae Williams Harris, and to his children. There were many nights when Etta Mae would arouse her children from their beds and take them to their grandmother's house in order to escape the violence. In his autobiography, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (2003), Harris writes that school and the Little Rock Public Library were his refuge from the pain and fear Ben Harris generated.
Although the verbal taunts and beatings continued after Harris's twelfth birthday, they had less impact after he learned that Ben Harris was not his biological father. Such knowledge, Harris writes in his autobiography, provided him with an "omnipotent shield" that protected him. Even greater relief came one year later when his mother, who worked two jobs during most of her son's childhood and attended business college, divorced her husband. Two years later when he was fifteen years old, Harris returned to Flint where he spent the summer with a relative and met his father, James Jeter. Their attempts at establishing a father-son relationship did not extend beyond that season because Jeter died in an automobile accident in April of the following year.
Succeeds in Educational Endeavors
Regardless of the adversities in Harris's young life, school always remained important to him. After he graduated from Bush Elementary, Harris enrolled in Booker Junior High, which was six blocks from his house. However, he transferred to West Side Junior High, which was integrated (70 percent of the student body was African American). In order to get to West Side, Harris walked thirteen miles. Instead of enrolling in his neighborhood school, the historic Little Rock Central High School that two years prior to Harris's birth became infamous during efforts to block nine African American students from enrolling, Harris chose Hall High School. During the summer of 1972, he attended the Arkansas Boys State, the same one-week program to prepare young males for government leadership that former President Bill Clinton had attended years earlier when he was a teenager. Later that summer, Harris participated in a similar, six-week government program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
After graduating from Hall High School in 1973, Harris matriculated at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville where he was the editor of the 1977 Razorback yearbook; thus he was the first African American to edit a publication at the school. This achievement, according to Jet magazine, marked the first time an African American edited a yearbook at a major southern university. Also at the University of Arkansas, Harris was president of his fraternity, vice-president of Black Americans for Democracy, and the first African American male Razor-backs cheerleader. He graduated with honors with a B.A. in journalism in 1977 and later pursued business classes at Southern Methodist University.
- Born in Flint, Michigan on June 20
- Moves to Little Rock, Arkansas
- Graduates from Hall High School
- Graduates with honors with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville; as Razorback editor, is the first African American yearbook editor at a major southern university
- Begins career as a computer sales executive; is employed by IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and AT&T
- Attempts suicide and later in Howard University Hospital's emergency room, decides he wants to live
- Ends his career as a computer sales executive; writes first novel Invisible Life; publishes and distributes it after publishers reject it
- Signs a contract with Doubleday which represents the official start of his writing career
- Edits Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing with Marita Golden
- After writing eight novels, writes his autobiography, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted; returns to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville as writer-in-residence
- Edits Freedom in the Village: Twenty-Five Years of Black Gay Men's Writing, 1979 to the Present
Prior to graduating from the University of Arkansas, Harris considered enrolling in law school. He met a white recruiter for IBM who advised him to take the company's technical aptitude test. The recruiter assumed that Harris would not do well on the test because of his liberal arts background and told Harris that he would recommend him to IBM Office products which sold typewriters, yet after Harris scored the highest of any minority student on IBM's technical aptitude test, he was hired by IBM in Dallas in computer sales. Since IBM's starting salaries were significantly higher than the starting salaries in journalism, Harris planned to work at IBM for a few years, save money, and then enroll in law school or journalism school. However, Harris sold computers for thirteen years for IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and AT&T while living in Dallas; New York; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta. By the time Harris was twenty-six, he was earning $100,000 a year.
Hits Nadir in Personal Life
Although Harris's career was flourishing, his personal life was in shambles. In August 1990, living in Washington, D.C., he attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills and drinking vodka. In What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, Harris writes that when he woke up the next day, he "realized that [his] suicide attempt had failed, that God was in control and not ready for [him] yet." Consequently, Harris called a taxi and went to the emergency room at Howard University Hospital where he realized that he wanted to live and that there was a reason his attempted suicide had failed. Following several months of therapy, Harris returned to Little Rock.
In January 1991, he moved to Atlanta, walked away from his career in computer sales and began writing. In his autobiography, Harris writes, "I wanted to write a story that would capture the pain and joy of being black and gay. I wanted it to be a love story … I wanted my story to be one where women, if they decided to read it, would think about the choices they made when it came to men." Harris's writing endeavors fulfilled a promise he made in the late 1980s to his friend, Richard Coleman. While Harris visited Coleman, who was dying of cancer, he told Harris that he should write a book; Harris promised his friend he would consider the idea. Harris had also met Maya Angelou in 1983 when she was a guest speaker at a corporate conference sponsored by the company where he worked. When Harris told Angelou he wanted to be a writer, she advised him to write every day even if he only wrote a single word.
In July 1991, Harris completed his first novel, Invisible Life. He sent copies to New York publishing companies, and by September, all of them had rejected the novel. Undaunted by the rejection letters, Harris created his own company, Consortium Press, and published and distributed his novel. In early December 1991, 5,500 copies of Invisible Life were printed, and Harris drew upon his sales experience to promote and sell it. Harris loaded the trunk of his car with boxes of Invisible Life and sold his novel at African American beauty salons, bookstores, book clubs, etc. Harris's perseverance paid off because other bookstores requested his book after their customers began inquiring about it. Essence proclaimed it one of the magazine's ten best books of the year, and by the time he had sold ten thousand copies of his book, Harris signed a contract with Doubleday, which released Invisible Life as an Anchor Books paperback in 1994. Five years later, Doubleday, paying tribute to Harris's phenomenal success as a writer, published a special fifth anniversary, hardcover edition of Invisible Life.
Harris's first book established a precedent that each of his subsequent novels as well as his autobiography have met—achieving bestseller status. Doubleday published Just As I Am (1994), which was the first work by an African American male to rank number one on Blackboard's bestsellers list; Harris's second novel received Blackboard's 1996 Novel of the Year Award and along with Invisible Life, received a film option from Show-time. Harris's third novel, And This Too Shall Pass (1996) was optioned by Pam Grier for her production company. His novels have consistently appeared on the bestseller lists and been reviewed in various publications. Harris's next novel, If This World Were Mine (1997), was nominated for a NAACP Image Award and won the James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence. Harris's fifth novel, Abide with Me (1999), is the last novel in the trilogy of Harris's character, Raymond Taylor, that began with Invisible Life and continued with Just As I Am: Abide with Me, for which Doubleday paid Harris more than $1 million, was also nominated for a NAACP Image Award.
Harris's sixth novel, Not a Day Goes By (2000), debuted in second place on the New York Times bestseller list and ranked as Publisher's Weekly's top bestseller for two consecutive weeks. In 2004, an adaptation of his novel, Not a Day Goes By: The Play, was performed nationwide; the play starred Jackee Harry, Trenyce, and Gary Owens. Harris followed his sixth novel's success with "Money Can't Buy Me Love," a novella that was published in Got to Be Real: Four Original Love Stories (2000); the book also contains stories by Colin Channer, Eric Jerome Dickey, and Marcus Major. His next novel, Any Way the Wind Blows (2001), was the first book after Harris signed a new contract with Doubleday worth between $5,000,000 and $6,000,000. The book, a sequel to Not a Day Goes By, debuted in second place on the New York Times bestseller list. It was also named Blackboard's Novel of the Year (2002). When Harris was awarded Blackboard's Novel of the Year (2003) for his subsequent novel, A Love of My Own (2002), he became the first writer to receive the award three times and the first author to receive it in consecutive years. A Love of My Own was also nominated for an NAACP Image Award. His autobiography, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (2003), won the 2003 Lamda "Bridge Builder" Literary Award.
In addition to his novels, collection of short stories, and autobiography, Harris edited two compilations: Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing (with Marita Golden, 2002) and Freedom in This Village: Twenty-five Years of Black Gay Men's Writing, 1979 to the Present (2005). Various other writing have also appeared in such periodicals as American Visions, The Advocate, Essence, Savoy, and the Washington Post Sunday Magazine as well as such anthologies as Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America (1995).
Pursues Additional Endeavors
Harris's extraordinary success in the literary world has provided him with opportunities to showcase his talents in other areas. In 2003, Harris returned to his alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where, as writer-in-residence, he taught creative writing as well as literature, served as the cheer coach for the Razorback cheerleading team, and remained a fan of the Razorback football team. Harris has lectured at many colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Carnegie Mellon University, College of William and Mary, Florida A & M University, George Washington University, Hampton University, Harvard University, and others.
Harris, who acknowledged that the Broadway hit, Dreamgirls, is his favorite musical, appeared as the emcee in a fall 2001 benefit performance of Dreamgirls that starred Lillias White, Heather Headley, and Audra McDonald. Harris also appeared on Broadway in a special one-night performance of Love Letters to America, with Rosie Perez, Annabella Sciorra, and others. Harris's talents have reached the motion picture screen; three of his novels have film options, and Harris has written a screenplay for a remake of the popular 1970s African American film Sparkle.
Harris is a member of the Board of Directors of the Evidence Dance Company and the Board of Directors of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, an organization founded in 1990 by novelist Marita Golden to support writers of African descent. In addition, Harris has established the E. Lynn Harris Better Days Literary Foundation in order to assist new authors. Proceeds from the fifth anniversary edition of Invisible Life were earmarked for the foundation.
Harris, who was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame (2000), is the recipient of a variety of additional awards and honors, including the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville's Distinguished Alumni Citation (1999), Poets & Writers' Writers for Writing Award (2002), Sprague Todes Literary Award, Harvey Milk Honorary Diploma, SBC Magazine Brother of the Year Literature Award, Harlem Y. Mentor Award, and GMAD (Gay Men of African Descent) Award. Harris remains one of the most influential and inspirational literary voices in the United States.
Weaver, Kimberly. "E. Lynn Harris." In Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Linda M. Carter