Everette Lynn Harris was a bestselling author of novels about African-American men in gay and bisexual relationships. In his nine novels, which have sold more than three million copies, the gay characters are “on the down low,” or have not publicized their sexuality. Harris, a black man, endured years of abuse at the hands of his stepfather and for years denied his own homosexuality.
E. Lynn Harris was born on June 20, 1955, in Flint, Michigan, to Etta Mae Williams and James Jeter, who were unmarried. When Harris was three, he moved with his mother to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where she worked as a housekeeper. She soon married Ben Odis Harris, who helped raise Harris until he was thirteen, at which time the couple divorced. Harris had three younger sisters. The summer before his junior year of high school, when Harris was fifteen, he learned about his biological father and visited him several times while staying with relatives in Michigan. Jeter died in an automobile accident the next spring.
In his youth, Harris frequented the public library in Little Rock and fell in love with the writings of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. He also worked at the Little Rock Zoo, Baskin-Robbins, Arkansas Paper Co., and M. M. Cohn, using the money to buy clothes and school supplies.
Harris graduated from Hall High School in Little Rock in 1973 and attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in the mid-1970s. He was the school’s first black male cheerleader and first black yearbook editor, and he served as president of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. He graduated with honors in 1977, earning a BA in journalism.
He sold computers for IBM and other companies for thirteen years, living in Dallas, Texas; New York City, New York; Washington DC; and Atlanta, Georgia. For years, he kept his sexual orientation hidden, and this led to depression and heavy drinking. When living in Washington DC in August 1990, he attempted suicide by ingesting a mixture of champagne, vodka, and sleeping pills. He soon got sober and managed his depression with medication and therapy. He bought a computer and started writing his first book, which proved therapeutic.
While living in Atlanta, Harris self-published his Invisible Life in 1991 and personally hand-delivered it to black-owned bookstores and beauty salons. In this coming-of-age tale, the book’s protagonist, Raymond Tyler, discovers his bisexuality and struggles to accept his true desires. Invisible Life caught the eye of a Doubleday sales representative, who bought a copy and sent it to the publishing house. Eventually, Harris made a presentation to company officials, who signed him to a three-book deal. Anchor Books, an imprint of Doubleday, published the book in trade paperback in 1994.
Among his other novels are Just As I Am (1994), And This Too Shall Pass (1996), If This World Were Mine (1997), Abide with Me (1999), Not a Day Goes By (2000), Any Way the Wind Blows (2001), A Love of My Own (2002), and I Say a Little Prayer (2006). His books tell ultimately optimistic stories that explore friendship, careers, romance, sexuality, and race. Harris wrote with an ear for black dialect, with descriptions, slang terms, and dialogue. Just As I Am, Any Way the Wind Blows, and A Love of My Own all won Novel of the Year designations by the Blackboard African American Bestsellers Inc. In 1997, If This World Were Mine won the James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence. His memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, which he wrote over a period of seven years, was published in 2003.
In 1999, Harris’s alma mater, UA, honored him with a Citation of Distinguished Alumni for outstanding professional achievement. In 2000, he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. Other honors include the Sprague Todes Literary Award, the Harvey Milk Honorary Diploma, and the Silas Hunt Legacy Award for Outstanding Achievement from UA.
Harris returned to UA in the fall of 2003 to teach literature and writing in the Department of English, and he has served as cheer coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks cheerleading squad. For his class on contemporary black authors, he brought in authors as guest speakers. He also taught a class focused on black female writers. He lived in Fayetteville while teaching at UA but also had homes in Houston, Texas, and Atlanta.
A musical based on Not a Day Goes By toured nationally in 2004. As a lecturer, Harris spoke at colleges across the country. He wrote articles for Sports Illustrated, Essence, The Washington Post Sunday Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Advocate.
Harris’s novel I Say a Little Prayer was released in May 2006. Written during his time teaching at UA and time spent at his Houston, Texas, home, it debuted at number three on The New York Times Book Review’s bestseller list. He subsequently published Just Too Good to Be True (2008) and Basketball Jones (2009).
Harris died on July 24, 2009, in Los Angeles while on a business trip.
For additional information:
Harris, E. Lynn. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted: A Memoir. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Parks, Michelle. “Author’s teaching stint is filling him with gratitude, book ideas.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. May 11, 2006, pp. 1E, 6E.
———. “On his own terms,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. December 14, 2003, pp. 1D, 4D.