I return to learn that E. Lynn Harris has died. An outdated email message finally acquired from an account that was inaccessible from Nairobi. And so this return feels like other returns to other places, in which death notices serve as welcome mats. I have not read Harris’s novels in over ten years, and my initial feelings toward them (gratitude) and subsequent re-evaluation (anger) have been muted.
Somewhere in the ever-growing list of essays to be written is one titled “Perfect & Jood,” a somewhat narcissistic take on my relationship to Harris and James Earl Hardy, both of whom I read at the same time, and both of whom supplemented and critiqued each other. In my memory, Harris and Hardy needed each other to create a richly textured world of black male intimacy. Where Harris’s men were upper middle class daytime soap star types (too good looking, too successful, too mired in minor dramas), Hardy’s were up-by-the-bootstraps successful, but with the kind of success that was a generation, or paycheck, away from un-success. Harris’s men loved closets, and hid in them while wives and girlfriends romped with their DL lovers; Hardy’s men were all over the map, from the barely out to the gay parade marshals.
I have been thinking about literary appreciation, more specifically about what remains of a work once it has been read. When I first read Harris and Hardy, I was grateful. It’s difficult, in retrospect, to quantify that gratitude, to give flesh to its openings and enfoldings. It was, at that point, a familiar gratitude, the kind that overflowed as I moved from one life-changing text to another, one life-changing idea to another, as I absorbed, greedily, and without discrimination, what would later form a variegated, if moving, base, a contingent foundation.
One of the major papers I wrote then, major not for its ideas but for the directions it has enabled, featured Hardy as a counterweight to Larry Kramer. Of course, I realize, now, that the Hardy good/Kramer bad argument was rather silly, but it was enabling, because it allowed me to claim black gay urban fiction as an intellectual foundation. I was learning, then, what Sedgwick terms a reparative mode of criticism: to find sustenance by marrying traditional and non-traditional texts and methods, and to extend what I found truncated, albeit with ellipses.
Harris and Hardy would teach me what it meant to humanize black queer characters, how to enflesh them, even when writing about them as a critic, how to love them, how to let that love translate into critical prose.
The first few paragraphs of Harris’s first novel described “perfect.”
It was, in memory, impressions and sensations, a world that one desired to desire, a kind of dream that left behind kisses, impressed itself on the mind, the body, the life. I have not returned to the novel in many years, and my recollection might be fuzzy, but I want to hold on to the fuzziness of how it felt to read it then.
Perfect was opposed to “jood,” Hardy’s aggressively used neologism for something that was better than good. Jood was bodily, boldly so, the cat whistle that made black gay desire visible (Hardy preferred SGL, a description with which I have some issues). Jood was blackness being made desirable between men, it was a bodily sound, a term that made blackness as pornography available, beyond the “oh yeah” and so on of Bel Ami models. Jood, a term I’ve yet to hear any live person use, was world making, and so was perfect.
Then, I was hungry for worlds to be made, I should say hungrier, and I devoured them, world after world after world, each one helping to open the possibilities for the others, each one creating even newer worlds I had yet, still have yet, to fully explore. (This might be, I hope, a more generous reading of what it means to desire one’s youth, to realize that its possibilities are still possible.)
I have mentioned anger at Harris’s work, and should probably explain it.
In his early novels, Harris addressed a class- and masculinity-based ambivalence that I could not process. His characters knew, or feared, the consequences of their sexual revelations, even as they struggled with the psychic costs of their secrets. He wrote, in those early novels, wonderful examinations of the closet. How could successful black men be gay? I’m not yet sure we have an answer to this question now. I’m not sure an answer is possible, or, possibly, I am the least qualified to address it.
I was angry because, as Essex puts it, I had believed in the dream of liberation which, at the time, I thought was the absence of ambivalence. To claim I was out was a duty, to embrace the freedom of outness a right. The multiple stories of how I learned to inhabit ambivalence require more words than I have and more. Harris’s characters inhabited ambivalence more frequently than I could process then. Even now.
Perfect & Jood were wonderfully, richly alive, and I needed that. In those days, each new author I discovered was yet another truncated life. Hardy and Harris were wonderfully, gloriously alive, and that aliveness was one more possible map. Playing in graves has a lot of dead ends.
I have not yet perfected a way to say goodbye to intimate strangers who feed my dreams. Belated waves from fast-moving traffic might capture what I want to say. I’ll look out for them.