28 July 2009


E Lynn Harris relates the folllowing incident with a favorite family member in his memoir What Becomes of the Brokenhearted: It is October 1991, and Harris is just about to self-publish his first book, Invisible Life. In talking to his 'Aunt Gee' he,

...mentioned that I was becoming comfortable with spending my life alone since I was gay. As I have said before, my aunt has always been supportive of me, no matter what. But during this talk, she said something that hurt me deeply.

'Baby, if I had raised you, I don't think you would have been gay.'

A chill went though my body, and after a few moments of silence I said, 'No Aunt Gee, you're wrong. I might ahve learned to love myself sooner, but I would still have been gay.'


The next day I delivered a copy of my novel to my aunt. A couple of days later, just before midnight, I got a call from her. This was very strange, because for as long as I could remember my aunt was always in bed by ten, unless you count the holidays when she was up late preparing meals.

When I made sure everything was all right with Uncle Charles and my cousins, I asked why she was calling me so late, and she said something that warmed my heart.

'Baby, I just finished your novel, and it's beautiful. Will you please forgive me for what I said the other day? Now I finally understand what you were trying to tell me,' Aunt Gee said. Through my tears I told her that of course I could forgive he and thanked her for calling. That night when I went to bed, I knew nothing was going to stop me from publishing my book.

Call it the "E Lynn Harris Effect." For many readers, gay and straight, E Lynn Harris' novels were windows into the lives of black people they'd never seen written about before. For many non-black and heterosexual readers, Lynn's books provided their first encounter with black, Same Gender Loving men. For both younger LGBTQ people as well as his contemporaries, the first time they encountered stories from their world, by and about themselves were in the pages of E Lynn Harris' novels. Over ten years ago I remember seeing a young man furtively but intently reading one of our well-worn copies of Invisible Life at the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of the library here, concerned, no doubt about others seeing him reading it, but intensely involved in the book nonetheless.

Lynn Harris also had an impact on the larger world of publishing as well. Starting out as a self-published author placing books in beauty parlors and selling them from the trunk of his car, the amazing success of Invisible Life caught the attention of mainstream publishers, which republished it and its sequels. Lynn was one of the first black authors to 'cross over' going from self-publishing to the top of the New York Times bestseller's list. (This was the point when I stopped jokingly referring to him as "Cousin Lynn": I figured enough REAL relatives would start showing up now that he was a success that he didn't need a fake one running around) Together, he and Terry McMillan helped to brake the stereotype that 'black people don't read.' He was a 'pop fiction' author, with no pretenses to 'literary' stardom: he simply wanted to continually improve at being a good storyteller and have as many people as possible read his books.

Some people have turned their noses up at Lynn's work saying they were little more than "Romances" (like Romance is a bad thing....), and they may not be everyones cup of literary tea. However, we should remember that before McMillan and Harris, the number of 'popular' or mid-list black authors was miniscule. Judith Krantz, Danelle Steele, and the Collins sisters (Jackie and Joan) were the authors many African American women read voraciously. There were few representations of black people in 'popular fiction' or on the paperback shelves. Lynn and Terry's success helped to change that, leading to the rise of the "Girlfriend" book, and now -- for better or worse -- "Street Lit" (although I do look forward to the next black gay or lesbian author to approach his level of sales)

(Photo: E Lynn Harris with Lamar Wilson) Lynn was also a great supporter of other writers, particularly other black -- sometimes gay, sometimes not -- authors just starting out. At his own events, Lynn always gave his fans a list of books by other authors they might enjoy while waiting for his next novel. He was co-editor with Marita Golden of the anthology Gumbo: A Celebration of African American Writing, helping to raise funds for the Hurston/Wright Foundation and guest editor of the Best African American Fiction 2009, and sometimes held 'launch parties' at his home in Chicago for other authors. Lynn was a major friend and supporter of the nation's public libraries -- I'm not sure he ever said 'no' when a library asked him to give a reading.

One of the most inspiring things about E Lynn Harris was how little he seemed let fame change him. He was the same friendly, courteous person he was when I first met him while buying one of his self-published copies of Invisible Life back in 1992, as he did the last time I saw him, almost 10 years later at a reading at the library. Every time I saw him he was genuinely grateful and appreciative of his adoring fans and everyone who read or purchased a copy of one of his books. As someone recently said to me, he was a True Southern Gentleman. He loved his fans and readers -- and we loved him right back.

14 July 2009

Blog Action Day: 10 Ways to Support Charity Through Social Media‏

I'm very proud and happy to participate in this blogosphere-wide event. This post, being simultaneously published across more than 100 blogs, is a collaboration between Mashable's Summer of Social Good charitable fundraiser and Max Gladwell's "10 Ways" series.


Social media is about connecting people and providing the tools necessary to have a conversation. That global conversation is an extremely powerful platform for spreading information and awareness about social causes and issues. That's one of the reasons charities can benefit so greatly from being active on social media channels. But you can also do a lot to help your favorite charity or causes you are passionate about through social media.

Below is a list of 10 ways you can use social media to show your support for issues that are important to you. If you can think of any other ways to help charities via social web tools, please add them in the comments. If you'd like to retweet this post or take the conversation to Twitter or FriendFeed, please use the hashtag #10Ways.

1. Write a Blog Post

Blogging is one of the easiest ways you can help a charity or cause you feel passionate about. Almost everyone has an outlet for blogging these days -- whether that means a site running WordPress, an account at LiveJournal, or a blog on MySpace or Facebook. By writing about issues you're passionate about, you're helping to spread awareness among your social circle. Because your friends or readers already trust you, what you say is influential.

Recently, a group of green bloggers banded together to raise individual $1 donations from their readers. The beneficiaries included Sustainable Harvest, Kiva, Healthy Child, Healthy World, Environmental Working Group, and Water for People. The blog-driven campaign included voting to determine how the funds would be distributed between the charities. You can read about the results here.

You should also consider taking part in Blog Action Day, a once a year event in which thousands of blogs pledge to write at least one post about a specific social cause (last year it was fighting poverty). Blog Action Day will be on October 15 this year.

2. Share Stories with Friends


Another way to spread awareness among your social graph is to share links to blog posts and news articles via sites like Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, Digg, and even through email. Your network of friends is likely interested in what you have to say, so you have influence wherever you've gathered a social network.

You'll be doing charities you support a great service when you share links to their campaigns, or to articles about causes you care about.

3. Follow Charities on Social Networks

In addition to sharing links to articles about issues you come across, you should also follow charities you support on the social networks where they are active. By increasing the size of their social graph, you're increasing the size of their reach. When your charities tweet or post information about a campaign or a cause, statistics or a link to a good article, consider retweeting that post on Twitter, liking it on Facebook, or blogging about it.

Following charities on social media sites is a great way to keep in the loop and get updates, and it's a great way to help the charity increase its reach by spreading information to your friends and followers.

You can follow the Summer of Social Good Charities:
Oxfam America
(Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube)

The Humane Society
(Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Flickr)

(Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/livestrongarmy" target="_blank">Flickr)

(Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr)

4. Support Causes on Awareness Hubs


Another way you can show your support for the charities you care about is to rally around them on awareness hubs like Change.org (NOTE: Your humble blogger hangs his hat here at Change.org) , Care2, or the Facebook Causes application. These are social networks or applications specifically built with non-profits in mind. They offer special tools and opportunities for charities to spread awareness of issues, take action, and raise money.

It's important to follow and support organizations on these sites because they're another point of access for you to gather information about a charity or cause, and because by supporting your charity you'll be increasing their overall reach. The more people they have following them and receiving their updates, the greater the chance that information they put out will spread virally.

5. Find Volunteer Opportunities

Using social media online can help connect you with volunteer opportunities offline, and according to web analytics firm Compete, traffic to volunteering sites is actually up sharply in 2009. Two of the biggest sites for locating volunteer opportunities are VolunteerMatch, which has almost 60,000 opportunities listed, and Idealist.org, which also lists paying jobs in the non-profit sector, in addition to maintaining databases of both volunteer jobs and willing volunteers (NOTE: Your humble blogger can be found here on Idealist) .

For those who are interested in helping out when volunteers are urgently needed in crisis situations, check out HelpInDisaster.org, a site which helps register and educate those who want to help during disasters so that local resources are not tied up directing the calls of eager volunteers. Teenagers, meanwhile, should check out DoSomething.org, a site targeted at young adults seeking volunteer opportunities in their communities.

6. Embed a Widget on Your Site

Many charities offer embeddable widgets or badges that you can use on your social networking profiles or blogs to show your support. These badges generally serve one of two purposes (or both). They raise awareness of an issue and offer up a link or links to additional information. And very often they are used to raise money.

Mashable's Summer of Social Good campaign, for example, has a widget that does both. The embeddable widget, which was custom built using Sprout (the creators of ChipIn), can both collect funds and offer information about the four charities the campaign supports.

7. Organize a Tweetup

You can use online social media tools to organize offline events, which are a great way to gather together like-minded people to raise awareness, raise money, or just discuss an issue that's important to you. Getting people together offline to learn about an important issue can really kick start the conversation and make supporting the cause seem more real.

Be sure to check out Mashable's guide to organizing a tweetup to make sure yours goes off without a hitch, or check to see if there are any tweetups in your area to attend that are already organized.

8. Express Yourself Using Video

As mentioned, blog posts are great, but a picture really says a thousand words. The web has become a lot more visual in recent years and there are now a large number of social tools to help you express yourself using video. When you record a video plea or call to action about your issue or charity, you can make your message sound more authentic and real. You can use sites like 12seconds.tv, Vimeo, and YouTube to easily record and spread your video message.

Last week, the Summer of Social Good campaign encouraged people to use video to show support for charity. The #12forGood campaign challenged people to submit a 12 second video of themselves doing something for the Summer of Social Good. That could be anything, from singing a song to reciting a poem to just dancing around like a maniac -- the idea was to use the power of video to spread awareness about the campaign and the charities it supports.

If you're more into watching videos than recording them, Givzy.com enables you to raise funds for charities like Unicef and St. Jude's Children's Hospital by sharing viral videos by e-mail.

9. Sign or Start a Petition


There aren't many more powerful ways to support a cause than to sign your name to a petition. Petitions spread awareness and, when successfully carried out, can demonstrate massive support for an issue. By making petitions viral, the social web has arguably made them even more powerful tools for social change. There are a large number of petition creation and hosting web sites out there. One of the biggest is The Petition Site, which is operated by the social awareness network Care2, or PetitionOnline.com, which has collected more than 79 million signatures over the years.

Petitions are extremely powerful, because they can strike a chord, spread virally, and serve as a visual demonstration of the support that an issue has gathered. Social media fans will want to check out a fairly new option for creating and spreading petitions: Twitition, an application that allows people to create, spread, and sign petitions via Twitter.

10. Organize an Online Event

Social media is a great way to organize offline, but you can also use online tools to organize effective online events. That can mean free form fund raising drives, like the Twitter-and-blog-powered campaign to raise money for a crisis center in Illinois last month that took in over $130,000 in just two weeks. Or it could mean an organized "tweet-a-thon" like the ones run by the 12for12k group, which aims to raise $12,000 each month for a different charity.

In March, 12for12k ran a 12-hour tweet-a-thon, in which any donation of at least $12 over a 12 hour period gained the person donating an entry into a drawing for prizes like an iPod Touch or a Nintendo Wii Fit. Last month, 12for12k took a different approach to an online event by holding a more ambitious 24-hour live video-a-thon, which included video interviews, music and sketch comedy performances, call-ins, and drawings for a large number of prizes given out to anyone who donated $12 or more.

Bonus: Think Outside the Box

Social media provides almost limitless opportunity for being creative. You can think outside the box to come up with all sorts of innovative ways to raise money or awareness for a charity or cause. When Drew Olanoff was diagnosed with cancer, for example, he created Blame Drew's Cancer, a campaign that encourages people to blow off steam by blaming his cancer for bad things in their lives using the Twitter hashtag #BlameDrewsCancer. Over 16,000 things have been blamed on Drew's cancer, and he intends to find sponsors to turn those tweets into donations to LIVESTRONG once he beats the disease.

Or check out Nathan Winters, who is biking across the United States and documenting the entire trip using social media tools, in order to raise money and awareness for The Nature Conservancy.

The number of innovative things you can do using social media to support a charity or spread information about an issue is nearly endless. Can you think of any others? Please share them in the comments.

Special thanks to VPS.net

vpsnet logoA special thanks to VPS.net, who are donating $100 to the Summer of Social Good for every signup they receive this week.

Sign up at VPS.net and use the coupon code "SOSG"to receive 3 Months of FREE hosting on top of your purchased term. VPS.net honors a 30 day no questions asked money back guarantee so there's no risk.

About the "10 Ways" Series

The "10 Ways" Series was originated by Max Gladwell. This is the second simultaneous blog post in the series. The first ran on more than 80 blogs, including Mashable. Among other things, it is a social media experiment and the exploration of a new content distribution model. You can follow Max Gladwell on Twitter.

This content was originally written by Mashable's Josh Catone.

04 July 2009

History Lesson

Happy 4th of July!

As shameful as it may be for me to say this, but...I sometimes watch 'Reality' television shows.

I try to 'clean this up' a bit by watching the more 'classy' shows, like Bravo's Top Chef and Project Runway, etc. But yes, well... there was that season of "America's Best Dance Crew" (which I may talk about at some point), and -- reruns only mind you! -- "America's Next Top Model."

While waiting for the new season Project Runway, I've been watching Bravo's fashion knock off show, "The Fashion Show" with Isaac Mizrahi and Kelly Rowland.

A recent show started an interesting discussion at our house. Contestants were first quizzed on various fashion icons from the past, then asked to create a complete look inspired by a signature piece based on these icons.

Others here in our version of the Big Brother house objected to this. "They're there to be designer, to create something new! Who cares if they know these people from the past!" While I agreed that the challenge was biased toward those who had gone to design school where one formally learns about such things, and also thought that it was wrong to give some contestants in the first challenge multiple choice but not do the same for others -- and, I confess, I'd JUST finished reading Nina Garcia's Little Black Book of Style (...umm....don't ask!:) or else I wouldn't have known some of the answers either -- I understand exactly this challenge was coming from.

As a writer, I think it is very important for artists and creative people to know where their particular genre came from, who the major figures from its past are, and how have they influenced what we see, read, and hear now. It always saddens me to talk to younger writers and ask "Who are your favorite poets" and hear "Oh, I don't read other writers - I don't want to get influenced by them." And I don't think I'm the only one who has run into this response.

ALL of us are influenced by the past. While we think we're being "New" and inventing something never seen before, more often than not we are simply recreating a pale imitation of something or someone who has gone before us. All of us can learn a great deal from past masters, about how they solved problems and achieved their goals, and often looking at the past can be a guide or road map for how to proceed in your own work and career.

Finally, it's always good to know that your field doesn't begin (or end) with you. We are part of a continuum, joining in a procession of creative people who went before us, giving insight and support to those who will follow us.

In the end, The Fashion Show judges had to choose between two people to eliminate: someone who knew the work of the past designer they had been assigned, but got it wrong by using incorrect materials and going her own way; or someone who DIDN'T know the history, and created a garment that, because of that, looked very little like something their designer from the past would have done. They (rightly to my mind) decided to let the person who 'knew' go, keeping the one who 'didn't know.' It is never too late to look back, educate yourself and improve.