For some individuals of the world, there is a reality that exists beyond what is reflected from their surface: A realm that has an enigmatic aura that can invoke curiosity in some and revulsion in others. The images our eyes receive and our brain interrupts may or may not be accurate. E. Lynn Harris, (born Everette Lynn Harris, in 1955, in Flint, Michigan) vividly portrays the aforementioned statements utilizing multi-dimensional fictional characters from a semi-autobiographical point of view. Being a multi-dimensional individual such as the characters he wrote about, Harris was the first black male cheerleader at the University of Arkansas where he received his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. He was also the first black yearbook editor and president of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. Harris himself had a secret he concealed for quite some time.
Before publishing his first book, Harris worked at IBM with a ninety thousand dollar salary. Once his first book was complete, he sent it to several publishers but none of them agreed to publish the manuscript. Some even criticized that black people didn’t want to read about the things that he was writing. Harris was able to print five thousand copies of his book himself, but received much devastation when only forty-two books were sold at his first book party. After carrying around boxes filled with his book and leaving them at salons, black-owned bookstores, and even door-to-door, bookstores began calling Harris due to customer requests. Consequently, Harris was able to sell ten thousand copies of the book he published by having a publishing house mass produce his book. It eventually became named the “Best of the Year” by Essence Magazine.
It should come to no surprise that Harris accomplished quite a bit and received numerous accolades. He received the Citation of Distinguished Alumni for outstanding professional achievement from his alma mater, the James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence for “If This World Were Mine,” and three novels he wrote received Novel of the Year designations by the Blackboard African American Bestsellers Inc. Beyond writing, Harris served as a a guest lecturer at several colleges and universities such as Harvard University and Pittsburgh’s very own, Carnegie Mellon University. His impact on the lives of many became even more solidified when he was inducted into the Arkansas Hall of Fame.
Harris wrote a total of fourteen fictional books, three non-fictional books (including his memoir), and one short story, before his death in July 2009 at the age of 54. His Invisible Life series includes the novels “Invisible Life,” “Just As I Am,” and “Abide With Me.” Across Harris’ literary work, various issues are conveyed through the experiences of the characters, such as: HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation, mental health, colorism, racism, rape, suicide, religion, revealing ones sexuality, fraternities, and acceptance. Written starting in 1980, reading this series stimulated several thoughts such as, are some (or all) of the issues Harris writes about still relevant in today’s society as a whole, but particularly the Black community.
One of the most prominent themes that occur across the Invisible Life series is sexuality. The protagonist, Raymond Tyler Jr., explores his own sexual orientation on a journey filled with tears, love loss, and love found, among several other revelations. Raymond initially struggles with accepting his homosexuality due to a variety of factors such as his family, career, and stigmas of society. These fears and inability to reside in a “perfect world,” create a ripple that collides with the lives of those Raymond comes in contact with. Characters identify mainly as heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual but that was in 1980 and my how have the times have changed.
More people than ever have non-traditional sexual orientations and gender identities. Despite growth in knowledge and acceptance of such non-binary conforming individuals, Older Americans are more likely than younger people to be uncomfortable with someone who does not identify as traditional structures of gender. Ironically enough, there are individuals that share sexual and romantic feelings for the same sex that seemingly reject non-traditional, ostentatious, personas. In “Just As I Am,” Raymond speaks about the homophobia that exists within the gay community during that time, and is also still prevalent to this day.
“In a lot of ways, I thought I was better than most drag queens, even though we had both slept with members of the same sex. In fact, there were times that I felt superior to gay guys who were overly effeminate or passive in bed. I also knew, I was not alone in my thinking. I thought about men like Kelvin, Basil, and Quinn. We all had what could be called “homophobia in the homosexual community. When I went out to the bars I was polite but with chilly overtones when drag queens or fem guys approached me. I smiled, and then gave them that “Don’t even think about it” look.”
- Raymond Tyler (Just As I Am)
Harris teaches me a valuable lesson through a lot of his characters. Self-discovery, that quest to truly solidify the anchor of your being, may require acknowledging the painful truths about yourself and evaluating your prospective. Raymond acknowledges his emotions regarding individuals of his community in which could be classified as homophobia but experiences quite a few situations that alter his prospective to showcase a spotlight of benevolence and empathy. While defending a two million dollar lawsuit for the undeniably “steel grey eyed” sexy football sensation, Basil Henderson, Raymond vocalizes such a revelation.
“I thought back to Sherrod’s client Charles Marshall and how my support of Basil’s actions were desperately wrong. My feelings towards Marshall were based on his appearance and mannerisms and ill feelings were just as damaging as Basil’s fist. No matter what Basil and I thought about Marshall’s advances, he didn’t deserve Basil’s beating or my contempt. I realized I must come face to face with those feelings and fears so I could overcome them. I questioned what type of example I am setting for my little brother. “
- Raymond Tyler (Just As I Am)
While Raymond realizes how his actions could consequently negatively affect his own litter brother, I also acknowledge the magnitude toxic ill feelings can have on an individual and the world around them. Basil Henderson himself identifies as heterosexual and quite obviously has no positive public regard for the gay community, despite the fact that he will have sex with men. Raymond details this when he awakens after a steamy night in the sheets with the irresistible Basil.
“I noticed the gold condom wrapper on Basil’s nightstand and another two on the ivory carpet below. How many condoms had we used? There was an empty champagne bottle and a potato chip bag sitting along side the lap and digital clock that now displayed 7 o’clock.
“Well, I guess I better get out of here before your neighbors leave.” I offered.
“Okay.” Basil said without looking in my direction.
“Is there a problem? Are you sorry about last night?” I asked
“Nah. No, Ray. It was great but…” Basil paused. “Well, you know I’m not gay right? I have a girlfriend.
“Sure, I know you’re not gay.” I lied
“You know I love pussy. In fact, I’ve had so much pussy, I could give you some.” He laughed.
“I know” what was this fool talking about?
“And this will be just between you and me, no strings.”
“Who am I going to tell? Of course no strings.”
- Raymond Tyler Jr. and Basil Henderson (Just As I Am)
Throughout the “Invisible Life” series Basil has conflict with his sexuality that manifest into negative situations such as him sending Charles Marshall to the hospital and getting engaged without informing his fiancé of his sexual attraction towards men. It is later discovered that he was molested as a child after seeking professional help in which Raymond suggested he do. Once again, I see how Harris showcases how acknowledging potentially toxic behaviors and perspectives, one can achieve upward personal growth, despite how difficult it may be. Basil, despite his initial unwillingness to accept the fact that he could have a problem, slowly but surely begins to open up in his therapy sessions. I am reminded that it is okay to seek out resolution of your personal issues to be more emancipated from past transgressions and agonizing experiences to further excel to a better self.
Joining Raymond and Basil in the quest of resolution is Nicole Springer, who is the Broadway “class act diva” that plays Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls” with chocolate skin comparable to Naomi Campbell. While Nicole may be familiar with the spotlight and applause, she is very humble and has a pretty strong religious background and bond with the Lord. Nicole’s religious bond may be strong however the one with her mother could arguably be anything of the sort. Nicole recounts various situations with her mother that involve tension, misunderstanding, disconnection, and the perils of the still on-going battle between #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin.
“When I was a little girl, my mother would take me to Downtown Little Rock to shop. It was our special time together, just us girls. People always thought she wasn’t my mother: me being so dark and my mother having beautiful color honey skin. One day, these two ladies kept badgering my mother, saying there was no way, that I could be her daughter. When I thought my mother could finally convince them, they laughed and said my daddy must’ve had some power blueberry genes. My mother joined in their laughter.” Nicole said.
“How old were you Nicole?” Dr. Vanessa Huntley asked.
“6 or 7.”
“Were these people black or white?”
“They were black. Light skin black women.”
- Nicole Springer (Just As I Am)
“They never understood why I kept entering beauty pageants and why I was usually the only black girl. My mother’s pride seemed to be even greater if another black girl was in the pageant and she happened to be light skin and I finished higher than she did. It didn’t matter to her that a white girl usually beat the both of us. In the south, as a dark skin black girl, I had to not only compete with white women, but lighter skin women of my own race, at least in my Mother’s Eyes.”
- Nicole Springer (Just As I Am)
Harris again shines light on problematic concepts within the black community. Nicole echoes a problem many have faced (including other characters in the series) regarding their skin tone. Dark-skin discrimination occurs within as well as across races such as the caste system set in India. The caste system is in place to form a structured society for the people of India based on one’s skin color. The lighter a person is, the more power that person holds, while the darker they are makes them more prone to living a harder life. Although life shouldn’t be that way for any human being, the darker toned Indians, often called the “untouchables,” are subject to hard labor throughout their lives.
Conversely, lighter skin individuals share the same sentiments. While on an episode of “Oprah’s Life class,” featuring Iyanla Vanzant, a discussion on this subject matter sparked rise in some of the light-skin women in the audience. They stated that while they see the disparities of their darker sisters, they themselves experience the same discrimination being called terms such as “high-yellow,” “lite-bright,” and “redbone.”
Nicole also addresses her personal feelings regarding gay and/or bisexual men. In a session with her therapist, Nicole paints a picture recalling the moment that herself and Raymond finally become intimate after dating for a considerable amount of time.
“Is there anything you want to discuss today? It’s been a couple of weeks since I seen you.” Dr. Vanessa G. Huntley asked.
“No not really, Delani was joking with me moments ago that I needed to seek professional help because I won’t go up to Kyle’s apartment.”
“Refresh my memory Nicole, why won’t you go up to Kyle’s apartment”
“Well that’s where Raymond use to live, the place where I risked my life.”
“Oh don’t you remember? I made love with him without using a condom. I felt he had betrayed me because he went ahead without telling me he was bisexual.”
“Did he force you?”
“But you still blame him?” Dr. Huntley asked.
“Why are we discussing this? We’ve been over this countless times, I know I have to take some of the responsibility. He did look for a condom but I don’t want to talk about that.” I said lifting my voice slightly.”
“There’s still some anger there Nicole. I think we need to talk about it.”
“Well I’m ready to go to the apartment, I’ve gotten over it. I’ve forgiven myself, and I’ve forgiven Raymond.”
- Nicole Springer and Dr. Huntley (Just As I Am)
This session turns out to be pivotal for Nicole regarding her dynamic with Raymond because she’s able to get more closure. She still however, is extremely apprehensive of any guy she may be interested in. This becomes apparent after the discovery of Raymond’s sexual attraction for men. Nicole recalls quite a few encounters where she questioned men about their sexuality and details their responses to her. Some got completely upset and cussed her out, even throwing a drink in her face. One guy she recalls in particular does not even speak after she ask him about his sexuality, he merely removes himself from the room and shows back up completely naked with an erection and says “Does this answer your question?”
Among the aforementioned internal battles Nicole fights, she also is the character that stumbled upon Kyle’s secret. Kyle is definitely the “divo” of the group. He is quite the looker and had no problem “reading you for filth” if he felt the need. His prospective on love is merely men are good for one thing and are not to be trusted with the heart. Much like other characters, Kyle struggles with his own internal demons. He was continuously getting himself in situations with “trade,” ended up losing his job, and became an escort. While working as an escort, Kyle meets “Steve,” which is later revealed to be Basil.
This is initially how Basil is introduced to Raymond. Due to Basil and Raymond going out on a date, Raymond discovered that Kyle was an escort and that’s how he even met Basil because Basil was utilizing the service for confidentiality purposes due to his high profile image. Raymond eventually confronts Kyle regarding this matter among other things. Later on, Nicole is invited over to Kyle’s apartment with Delani and she notices something very peculiar while touching up her makeup in his bathroom. She wrote the name of the medication on a slip of paper she had in her purse and eventually kisses Kyle goodbye to go have dinner at the restaurant downstairs in his building. Nicole meets her fiancé, Pierce, who is a doctor.
“Sorry I’m late” I said
“Thank for meeting me. I was beginning to think you wouldn’t show up.”
I was thinking about Kyle and didn’t hear what he was saying.
“Nicole, look at me. I need to explain.”
“Nicole. What’s the matter? You seem miles away?”
“I don’t know. Something is up. Pierce have you ever heard of this medication?” I asked as I handed Pierce the small piece of paper with the name of the mysterious medicine.
Pierce eyes suddenly got big and he reached inside his jacket and put on his glasses.
“Who’s taking this?” Pierce asked
“Kyle is, I think. What is it and how do you pronounce it?” I asked.
“Retrovir caps, 100 mg Zidovudine” Pierce said aloud as he read from the tiny piece of paper.
“Sounds serious. What is it in laymen terms?”
“You sure you want to know this?” Pierce asked.
“Yes.” I said impatiently.
“Nicole, it’s AZT. Whoever is taking this has AIDS, or at the very least, is HIV positive.” Pierce said solemnly.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes Nicole. I’m sorry, but sure.” Pierce said.
“Pierce, I’m sorry but we’ll have to talk about this later, I have to go. I promise I will call you later.”
- Nicole and Pierce (Just As I Am)
The secret is officially out. Harris once again details a struggle that not only his characters face, but the world as a whole. As we’ve discussed the Nicole, Raymond, Candance, and Kelvin dynamic prior, in “Invisible Life,” Nicole’s best friend Candance eventually does marry Kelvin and shortly after dies due to complications with AIDS. It is never confirmed, but certainly eluded, that despite her marriage to Kelvin if he was the one that infected her with the disease. From the excerpt from “Just As I Am,” we now see that Raymond and Nicole both are experiencing another encounter with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in their mutual best friend Kyle.
Kyle is certainly the trooper as Harris chronicles his experience living and ultimately succumbing to the disease. He doesn’t have a traditional funeral and since Raymond is a lawyer and also his best friend, he ensures him to handle his estate. While the majority of Harris’ characters are black, interesting enough in the time in which the stories take place, non-Hispanic whites were the predominant racial/ethic group among persons who had AIDS diagnoses. Over time however, racial and ethnic minority populations become disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic.
In the United States, black/African American gay and bisexual men are more affected by HIV than any other group of Americans. The number of new diagnoses has declined for black/African American as a whole in recent years but diagnoses among African American gay and bisexual men increased between 2005 and 2014. Contributing to these statistics are several influences such as socioeconomic factors, smaller and more exclusive sexual networks, lack of awareness of HIV status, stigma, homophobia and discrimination.
Some critics proclaimed that black people would never be interested in reading the things Harris wrote about. Harris became recognized for being groundbreaking for his literary ability to vocalize difficult stories of out and closeted gay and bisexual men in a way that crossed over to a heterosexual audience. Rather any individual, regardless of their race, decides to acknowledge the various issues depicted in “The Invisible Life” series, it does not negate the fact that they exist. They existed in the time Harris wrote his novels and are still very prominent to this day.
It is by far all gloom and doom. There are various beacons of hope that true unapologetic love is tangible. Despite the adversities we may receive, we can still overcome them. When we hit rock bottom, we rebuke defeat and later appreciate what made us stronger. We appreciate the ones we love that are still living because we’ve witnessed the lost of love ones before. For some this may not be a reality, but it is a reality nonetheless. Having the willingness to explore and learn more about difficult issues makes for a better understanding that in some instances can save a life.
One can only speculate why no one would want to educate his or her self to ensure, at the very least, his or her own personal safety. I personally do not understand how oppressed people can oppress people. Society has certainly seen some progression but the days where individuals can unapologetically be themselves globally I feel are not near. Yet despite the bleak side of reality, the Raymond’s and Nicole’s of the world, continue to embrace all of what life has to offer. Acknowledging their faults against others and of their self while being supporters and motivators of others on their own journey to fulfillment. Tomorrow may not be the day in which invisible lives will no longer roam the shadows, but Harris has shown us that we can still treat others how we wish for them to treat us: with kindness and mutual respect. We may not ever live in a “perfect world,” but by learning more about various aspects of society and cultures; we could possibly live in a better world.
Alex N. Wanderland
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