E. Lynn Harris and black gay re­flec­tions

Charles Stephens is the Di­rec­tor of Counter Nar­ra­tive and co-editor of ‘Black Gay Ge­nius: An­swer­ing Joseph Beam’s Call.’

GA Voice - - Outspoken - By Charles Stephens

Ev­ery black gay man I know, around my age at least, has been sig­nif­i­cantly im­pacted by the nov­els of E. Lynn Harris. Our com­ing-out ex­pe­ri­ence, if one can de­scribe the jour­ney of sex­ual self-aware­ness as “com­ing out,” was pro­foundly shaped by nov­els like “In­vis­i­ble Life” and “Just As I Am.”

In high school, we passed E. Lynn Harris’ nov­els back and forth among our­selves like sa­cred texts. “Just As I Am,” in par­tic­u­lar, which was pub­lished 20 years ago, was the novel that most of us read. At night, when we talked on the phone, we were giddy with ex­cite­ment de­scrib­ing our re­ac­tions to the var­i­ous scenes and char­ac­ters Harris de­picted. Those books were magic for us.

Read­ing his work was, for my gen­er­a­tion, the first time we en­coun­tered texts with char­ac­ters that even re­motely re­sem­bled us. This was be­fore most of us had read “Just Above My Head” by James Bald­win, and we did not yet know about Joseph Beam and Es­sex Hem­phill. We were so des­per­ate for a re­flec­tion, any re­flec­tion, of our­selves, our world, our ex­pe­ri­ences, that we prac­ti­cally in­haled his words off the page. We were South­ern black boys des­per­ately search­ing for a re­flec­tion, if not a blue­print, and through the nov­els of E. Lynn Harris, we thought we had dis­cov­ered it.

His work did not shout. It did not plead. His work al­ways had a con­ver­sa­tional and at times con­fes­sional tone. This is why many of us would later ac­cuse him of writ­ing his nov­els for het­ero­sex­ual women, ma­nip­u­lat­ing their fears and anx­i­eties for profit.

Harris did not have the same in­tel­lec­tual or po­lit­i­cal tools as Beam and Hem­phill. That was never Harris’ pro­ject any­way. He did, how­ever, grap­ple with sim­i­lar ques­tions: the black fam­ily, HIV, com­ing out, ro­man­tic love, de­sire, racism, faith, and lone­li­ness. At the same time, the pathol­o­giza­tion of bi­sex­ual black men and the HIV stigma so preva­lent in his work place him in a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory al­to­gether.

In the years fol­low­ing his death, I stopped hear­ing about his work as much. I was sur­prised, if not a bit amused, to dis­cover a few months ago that his first novel, “In­vis­i­ble Life,” was be­ing made into a mu­si­cal. This it­self was like some­thing out of an E. Lynn Harris novel. That the mu­si­cal fea­tures a score by Ash­ford and Simp­son and the first per­for­mance was on the eve of the U.S. Supreme Court rul­ing on mar­riage equal­ity only add to the very Harris-es­que na­ture of it all.

I met E. Lynn Harris only once, very briefly, sev­eral years ago. I was maybe 16 or 17 at the time. He was speak­ing and do­ing a book sign­ing at the Shrine of the Black Madonna over in the West End. I walked up to him, book in hand, and asked him to sign my copy of “And This Too Shall Pass.” He looked at me and smiled. “How old are you?” he asked, seem­ing shocked and yet tick­led that some­one my age would be at his book sign­ing.

“We were South­ern black boys des­per­ately search­ing for a re­flec­tion, if not a blue­print, and through the nov­els of E. Lynn Harris, we thought we had dis­cov­ered it.”

July 10, 2015

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