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Spent early years in Harlem section of New York City before moving to Missouri; traveled the entire length of the Mississippi River alone in a canoe, 1980s; published first book, A Mississippi Solo, 1988; traveled extensively through Africa, early 1990s; published Native Stranger, 1992; traveled across the South in a motorcycle and wrote South of Haunted Dreams, 1993; moved back to Harlem, early 1990s; published Still Life in Harlem, 1996; has written numerous articles and reviews for publications such as Outside, Sewanee Review, Washington Post, and others, 1990s; served as writer-in-residence at Washington University, St. Louis, MO; published Jupiter et Moi in France, 2005; currently resides in Paris, France.


A World of Difference; American Motorcyclist Association, MVP; Missouri Governor's Humanities Award for Literature


bulletA Mississippi Solo, 1988.
bulletNative Stranger, 1992.
bulletSouth of Haunted Dreams, 1993.
bulletStill Life in Harlem, 1996.
bulletJupiter et Moi, 2005.
bulletParis en noir et black, 2009.


Although he has established his reputation as the author of books that incisively explore places and the people within them, Eddy L. Harris has claimed that he is not a travel writer. His deeply penetrating accounts are searches for his own identity and the identity of blacks in general in various contexts, and how places either embrace or alienate black culture. For his literary efforts, Harris has gathered material first-hand from his own lengthy immersions into the geography, culture, history, and mindset of places ranging from unstable African countries, to New York City's famed Harlem, to the legendary Mississippi River.

Harris has traveled great distances, endured hardships, and even put his own life at risk in order to capture the essence of the black experience in different settings throughout the world. He has had a gun drawn on him because he brushed a man who was blocking his way on a city sidewalk, threatened by potentially fatal diseases in remote African villages, lived as a nomad in foreign territories where no one spoke English, and survived alone in the wilderness for weeks at a time. All of these experiences have been preserved and eloquently transformed into literature in his four acclaimed works of non-fiction.

Harris has stressed that complete immersion in a location is the only way to close the gap between insider and outsider. He feels that even his long habitations were not long enough to find out everything he wanted to know. As he wrote in Native Stranger: A Black American's Journey into the Heart of Africa, "It would perhaps be better to live and travel like the tortoise, who spends the 150 years of its life moving slowly, learning intimately every inch of ground it covers. Going so far and so fast as I was going, a traveler sees the world rush by like streaks of rain on the windscreen of a speeding car...The best I could hope for was to stand back from the tableau and absorb it, to let the myriad impressions come together and offer an image."

Much of Harris' literary focus has been devoted to discovering the essence of the black experience and how it has been affected by forced emigration from Africa, its exposure to American culture, and the impact blacks have had on white culture in the United States. He has also been outspoken about what he considers the futility of American blacks who think of themselves as transplanted Africans. "Africa is not our home," he wrote in Native Stranger. "Should the volcano erupt, we will have no place but the United States. If it isn't going to work there, if we can't make it work there, it isn't going to work."

While growing up in Harlem and the suburbs outside of St. Louis, Harris got an early taste of the power of storytelling. As a child he would sit mesmerized by his father's many stories, the truth of them often stretched beyond the breaking point for dramatic effect. In 1994, he told Crisis that his "passion for wanting to write comes from a passion to tell stories like my father." Harris also credits his stable family life for helping him avoid the pitfalls that claimed many other blacks who grew up impoverished and surrounded by crime and drugs. His parents also taught him a great deal about black history and his own family's connections to the slavery of the past, which further sparked his interest in writing about the black experience.

After graduating from college in 1977, Harris began his long journey toward developing his skills as a writer. According to an article in Crisis, he attributes his development during this period to the continuing financial support of his father, which allowed him to survive periods when money was tight. Harris hit his literary stride with the publication of Mississippi Solo in 1988, a book based on his trip down the entire length of the Mississippi River. The trip was an especially ambitious venture for Harris, who had had little experience in the wilderness. "It was an impetuous plan, and one for which I was quite ill-prepared," he wrote in a 1997 article in Outside magazine. "I'd scarcely been in a canoe before. I'd been camping twice in my entire life." Harris experienced danger throughout the trip, from a pack of wild dogs who trapped him in his tent to a pair of racist white hunters whom he had to chase away with a shot from his pistol.

In 1992, Harris chronicled his extensive trip through Africa from Tunisia to South Africa in the critically-acclaimed Native Stranger, a trip where "he encountered astonishing kindness, appalling cruelty, great wealth and even greater poverty, disease, corruption--all the usual suspects in any postcolonial African lineup," according to Malcolm Jones, Jr., in Newsweek. During his adventures in Africa, Harris had to cross the border from Mauritania into Senegal during a harrowing period of ethnic cleansing, was arrested in Liberia, and had to bribe his way into Nigeria. His health was compromised by bouts with malaria and diarrhea, not to mention filth whose magnitude far exceeded anything in his experience. In his review of the book in Black Enterprise, Herb Boyd said that Harris "eloquently conveys impressions of the myth, magic and mystery of the ancestors he desperately wants to know, but cannot, because of cultural differences."

In Native Stranger, Harris concentrated on finding links between himself and the land of his forefathers. "Although I am not African, there is a line that connects that place with this one, the place we come from and the place we find ourselves," wrote Harris about the continent. He added, "I love this place and resent it at the same time, and Africa reciprocates, trapped as we both are in this middle ground somewhere between black and white, past and future."

Following the release of Native Stranger, he published South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride Through Slavery's Old Back Yard in 1993. To complete this work, he rode a motorcycle across the American South, encountering both prejudice and kindness from strangers along the way. Harris filled the book with fascinating insights on everything from modern-day racism to why his slave ancestors didn't fight more strongly to win their freedom. "With honesty and humor, Harris lets the reader in on the fears, disappointments and joys this journey home brings," wrote Elsie B. Washington in her review of the book in Essence.

Perhaps Harris's most challenging experience was the two years he spent in Harlem, an experience that fueled his next book, Still Life in Harlem, which was published in 1997 and hailed by Booklist as "a powerful memoir of Harlem life and those who live there." Exposure to the drug- and crime-riddled ruins of a once-vibrant black culture had a profound effect on Harris. Some of the events he witnessed in Harlem made him ashamed of his own race, most notably when he was awakened in the middle of the night by a man beating a woman in the street below his apartment. "In the few moments of my indecision I told myself that enough was enough, told myself that I wanted no longer to be black if this is how black men behaved, told myself that I wanted nothing more to do with a world without beauty in it, and that cared not for beauty," he said in an interview for Salon on the Internet.

While acknowledging the role of prejudice in the devastation of Harlem, Harris also stressed his resentment of blacks who abandoned Harlem once they achieved success. "I looked out my window and could see the dentist who lived on the corner, the piano teacher, a whole range of people I could grow up to be or not be," he told Salon about the disparity of his own early youth in Harlem and what he saw there as an adult. "I had all these choices. Now when you look at the black community, at least what we consider the black community --the hard-core urban centers-- all these role models have disappeared. It leaves only the gangster and drug dealer for kids to see. There are no decent jobs there anymore, no factories, nothing but the guy on the corner selling drugs."

Having traveled more than 10,000 miles on two continents in order to gather material for his books, Harris shows no sign of stopping his exploration of the black experience. He hopes to continue venturing into new territory, both literary and geographic, as he strives to shatter black stereotypes. Harris has made it clear that he thinks black culture has more of an influence on American culture than many people think. "I think the essence of this culture extends from the contributions of black people," he told Crisis. "So I think being black is really cool." As he added in his interview with Salon, "If you come up to me at a cocktail party, I want it to be impossible for you to make assumptions about me because my skin is black and I'm tall and I wear a beard."



bulletBlack Enterprise, September 1992, p. 14.
bulletBooklist, October 15, 1996.
bulletCrisis, July 1994, p. 20.
bulletThe Economist, February 13, 1993, p. 92.
bulletEssence, September 1993, p. 56.
bulletNewsweek, March 9, 1992, p. 14.
bulletOutside, December 1997.
bulletSewanee Review, Winter 1997, p. 142.


bulletAdditional information for this profile was obtained from the Amazon and Salon Web sites on the Internet.

Biography Resource Center
2001, Gale Group, Inc.