Now, in his most daring act yet, E. Lynn Harris writes the memoir
of his life—from his childhood in Arkansas as a closeted gay
boy through his struggling days as a self-published author to his
rise as a New York Times bestselling author.
In What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, E. Lynn Harris shares with
readers an extraordinary life touched by loneliness and depression
but most importantly reveals the triumphant life of a small town
dreamer who was able through writing to make his dreams and more
Here is an excerpt:
"Easter day is near . . .
Easter day is . . ."
Beverly Smith, a chubby ten-year-old, paused. She had forgotten
the words again. I wanted to shout out Easter day is here. Why couldn’t
she remember her speech? Even I knew her six-line speech.
Instead of saying here, Beverly stuck her fingers in her mouth
and twirled her thick, uncombed plaits with her free hand. She looked
as though she was going to cry, but suddenly she began to giggle,
much to the dismay of our Sunday School teacher, Miss Whitfield,
and myself. Beverly’s completion of her speech was the only
thing that stood in the way of my practicing my Easter speech and
then joining my friends for a quick game of kickball before twilight
covered the colored section of the east side of Little Rock, Arkansas.
It was the early 1960s and we were the only three people left in
the Metropolitan Baptist Church, an ash-gray building as big as
its name, and the centerpiece of our community of forty-plus families.
I was frustrated. All the other children had practiced their speeches
and darted out of the church onto the streets to play before their
parents called them in. It was not the kind of neighborhood where
whole families sat down for dinner together, like Leave It to Beaver,
because in the 1960s, many of the black adults worked two jobs.
In my neighborhood, if your own parents didn’t tell you to
come in, then some other adult would, and you had better obey.
I got tired of looking at Beverly, so my eyes moved to the wooden
boards with black slip-in numbers listing the hymns from the previous
week and the total attendance of Sunday School. I could hear the
laughter and shouts filter in through the open windows of the church.
From the voices I could tell my peers were playing the popular game
of hide-and-seek, where the seeker sang, "Honey . . . honey
. . . b . . . bar . . . b . . . bar . . . b. I can’t see you
see . . . see you see. Last night, night before, twenty-four robbers
were at my door. I got up, let them in, hit ’em in the head
with a rolling pin."
Miss Whitfield had saved me for last, because I had the longest
speech: twenty-two lines. A speech that long was usually given to
kids in the sixth grade, and never to an eight-year-old. I had memorized
each line the first day I received the typewritten speech.
As Beverly started over and once again struggled for the words
to her speech, my thoughts wandered to the upcoming Sunday. As my
eyes left the wooden boards and moved toward the empty pulpit, I
thought how proud my mama and daddy would be when I stood before
the congregation and said my speech in my new Easter coat. Easter
Sunday was the one time during the year I could count on Daddy being
at church alongside my mother.
In my fantasy, church members would marvel not only at my presentation
but at my new coat as well. They would question where the coat had
come from and how my parents could afford such extravagance with
three children. Little colored boys from my neighborhood were lucky
to get a new shirt and possibly a clip-on tie for Easter or Christmas.
With a little coaxing from Miss Whitfield, Beverly finally finished
her speech. I quickly jumped from the pew, raced to the front of
the church, and said my speech in record time, every word perfectly
clear and correct.
"That’s wonderful, Lynn, but slow down a little on Sunday.
Nobody’s going anywhere until you finish." Miss Whitfield
smiled. I nodded and smiled back, taking note that my accuracy had
removed the anguish her face had shown during Beverly’s struggle.
Easter Sunday 1964 finally arrived. After my bath, I raced into
the tiny room I shared with my two younger sisters and saw the coat
laid out on my twin bed. It was red, black, and green plaid with
gold buttons. Daddy and I had picked the coat out together at Dundee’s
Men’s Store. The coat had been on layaway since the day President
Kennedy was shot in 1963. It’s strange how vividly I remember
that rainy and dreary day and how I tried to contain my excitement
about getting out of school early while all the teachers at Bush
Elementary were in tears over the news they’d heard over the
After I got home that day, Daddy and I walked in the cold to the
edge of downtown Little Rock. At first I thought that maybe I was
going to the President’s funeral when Daddy said he and his
little man "Mike" were going to Dundee’s to buy
new suit coats. I realized that this was not the case when Daddy
handed over five one-dollar bills and the elderly white man gave
him a gray payment book. The coat was the first piece of clothing
that I could remember that hadn’t come from JCPenney’s
or Kent Dollar Store and was the first piece of clothing I had picked
out. Now Easter was here and I could wear my new jacket. Mama had
assembled it alongside a pair of black pants, white shirt, and red
and black clip-on bow tie, and the shoes my daddy had polished to
perfection sat under my bed.
I quickly put on my new clothes, and I could see my sisters, Anita
and Zettoria, who were five and three, slip on new dresses over
their freshly pressed hair. Anita had on a blue taffeta dress, and
Shane (our nickname for Zettoria, since her name was so hard to
pronounce) had on an identical one in pink. Their dresses were pretty
but didn’t compare to my coat.
From the bathroom, Mama urged us to hurry, while Daddy called from
the living room for us to gather for a final inspection before we
left for Sunday School. My sisters grabbed their new black patent-leather
pocketbooks and raced to the living room to greet Daddy. I peeked
from the corner of our room to watch Daddy’s reaction.
"Look, Daddy. Don’t we look pretty?" Anita said
as she twirled around. Shane giggled as she put her pocketbook strap
to her mouth.
"You sure do look good. Look at my little girls. Shane, take
the purse out of your mouth, baby," Daddy said.
After Anita and Shane had accepted their compliments from Daddy,
he called me in for inspection.
"Where is my little man? Come out here and let Daddy see that
new coat," he said.
I quickly buttoned up each of the three gold buttons and dashed
to the living room for Daddy’s endorsement of my outfit.
"Look, Daddy. Look at me," I said with excitement as
I twirled around like my sisters had moments before. Suddenly Daddy’s
bright smile turned into a disgusted frown. What was wrong? Didn’t
he like my new coat? Had Easter been canceled?
"Come here. Stop that damn twirling around," Daddy yelled.
I stopped and moved toward Daddy. He was seated on the armless
aqua vinyl sofa. Before I reached him, he grabbed me and shouted,
"Look at you. You fuckin’ little sissy with this coat
all buttoned up like a little girl. Don’t you know better?
Men don’t button up their coats all the way." Before
I could respond or clearly realize what I had done wrong, I saw
Daddy’s powerful hands moving toward me. His grip was so quick
and powerful that I felt the back of my prized coat come apart.
A panic filled my tiny body when I saw his hands clutching the fabric.
I began to cry as my sisters looked on in horror. I could hear Mama’s
high heels clicking swiftly as she raced to the living room from
"Ben, what are you doing?" Mama asked.
"Shut up, Etta Mae. I’m taking care of this. Stop all
that damn crying. Stop it now!" Daddy said to me.
I couldn’t stop crying as I saw one of the gold buttons roll
under the metal television stand into the corner of room.
"If you don’t stop that crying, I’m gonna whip
your little narrow ass," Daddy warned as he released me.
Now I was crying harder than before. Snot dripped from
my nose to the top of my lip as my mother inspected my badly torn
"Come here, baby. Stop crying," she said as she pulled
me close to her chest.
"Let him go. Stop babying him," Daddy said as he pulled
me from my mother’s embrace.
"How is he ever gonna become a man with you babying him all
the time!" he yelled.
Mama didn’t answer. She never did when he talked in this
tone. She knew this routine too well.
"Stop that sniffling and clean your face, you little sissy,"
he said to me. "What are you going to wear to church now?"
I didn’t answer, and I wiped my nose with the arm of my prized
jacket and began crying once again.
"If you don’t stop that damn crying, I’m going
to make you wear one of your sister’s dresses to church."
I caught myself and stopped crying. Daddy meant what he said. I
would be the laughingstock of the entire neighborhood. It wouldn’t
matter that I had the longest and most difficult speech. I could
see all my friends pointing and laughing at me.
I looked at the anger in Daddy’s eyes and the fear on my
mother’s face as I blinked back tears. The small four-room
clapboard house was silent with the exception of my sniffles. The
living room suddenly felt too small, the ceiling too low. I looked
around the room at my mother and sisters and then out the window,
and watched the cars race past our house on East Twenty-first Street.
I don’t remember much after my mother pulled me back into
the bedroom. I remember standing before the packed church that Easter
Sunday and hearing my name being called and the older ladies of
the church adorned in their Easter Sunday finery saying, "Go
’head, baby. Preach the word."
I said my speech, each word of the twenty-two lines. I could hear
the polite applause and "amens" that followed, as I, with
my head held low, took my appointed seat on the pew with the other
children from my Sunday School class, dressed perfectly in their
finest clothes. I don’t remember what I wore that Easter Sunday
or many Easters that followed. All I recall is that I wasn’t
wearing a dress, and I remember what my daddy had said to me. I
didn’t know what a sissy was and why Daddy despised them so.
All I knew was that I was determined never to be one.