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Harris, E. Lynn(1955–) - Novelist, Succeeds in Educational Endeavors, Chronology, Pursues Additional Endeavors

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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.

Chronology

1955

Born in Flint, Michigan on June 20

1958

Moves to Little Rock, Arkansas

1973

Graduates from Hall High School

1977

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

1977

Begins career as a computer sales executive; is employed by IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and AT&T

1990

Attempts suicide and later in Howard University Hospital’s emergency room, decides he wants to live

1991

Ends his career as a computer sales executive; writes first novel Invisible Life ; publishes and distributes it after publishers reject it

1994

Signs a contract with Doubleday which represents the official start of his writing career

2002

Edits Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing with Marita Golden

2003

After writing eight novels, writes his autobiography, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted ; returns to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville as writer-in-residence

2005

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.

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.

Harris, Theresa (1909–1985) [next] [back] Harris, Christina Phelps (1902–1972) - Middle Eastern History

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