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Only just now, I’ve begun to realize that my life as a reader and writer was already laid out for me on my mother’s living room bookshelf. From her hardback copy of Brian Lanker’s I Dream A World to her paperback copies of Another Country, The Color Purple, and Sula. I can’t help but feel that the books on her bookshelf allowed me to read my way into what I now know as a life. And though each of those books spoke to some essential part of me, the book I overlooked all those years was perhaps the one I was most desperate to read.
The cover of Just As I Am, E. Lynn Harris’s follow-up to Invisible Life, features two black men in an embrace that could be viewed as brotherly – unless of course, you know better – and in the background a woman looks on with an expression somewhere between adoration and confusion. Such an image speaks to the major themes in Harris’s work. For his protagonists, often successful black male professionals and athletes, love was almost always a triangle involving the men and women they loved imperfectly. In Just As I Am, Harris allows readers to connect to Raymond’s hard-wrought journey out of the closet while also appreciating Nicole’s frustration and attempts to maintain a connection with a man who doesn’t even know himself. That was Harris’s gift: the ability to give all of his characters their complete humanity and in doing so, pass that fullness on to readers.
Ironically, even though Just As I Am (a title which I can’t help but read as prophecy) was on my bookshelf the whole time, I didn’t notice it was there until I came home from college one summer. By then I had already read several of Harris’s books on my own. For example, his memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, was more than a book I could relate to. It felt like a confidential conversation between the two of us. The details of Harris’s experiences growing up in Arkansas and his hard-wrought journey out of the closet were so familiar they almost made me uncomfortable. Each paragraph felt like a pointing finger softly but insistently pressing my chest.
Harris wrote with a sincerity that never allowed us to forget he was able to create these stories, in part, because he knew them so well. Perhaps that’s why Harris often referred to the experience of writing about his black gay characters as “getting naked.” That’s certainly how it felt then and feels now to read his work.
And though Harris passed away unexpectedly last year at the age of 54 and way before his time, it seems that his work was in many ways ahead of the rest of us. Even in 2010 when talk show hosts and pundits continue to discuss black sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and the down-low with startled disbelief and barely concealed revulsion, readers familiar with his work know that even in 1991, when Harris published Invisible Life, his first book, he was writing about those very issues in way that spoke to gay black men – in and out of the closet – as well as the women who loved them.
Truth be told, I know more women than men familiar with his work. I think that says something about his empathy as a writer. It was never about apologizing for men on the down low nor did Harris seek to sensationalize black homosexuality. For Harris and the books he gave us, writing and reading were an opportunity to perhaps finally know ourselves and each other.