How Author Eddy L. Harris Changed My Life
by Patrick Dobson
My favorite travel writer and friend, Eddy L. Harris, wrote books that changed my life. Maybe I read them at the right time or his messages hit me in the heart for who I am. Perhaps parts of his stories resembled my own life’s narrative. I think, at bottom, his writing affected me in these ways and many more.
I first ran into Harris’ second book, Native Stranger: A Black American’s Journey into the Heart of Africa, while poking around in the travel narrative section of a book store in Laramie, Wyoming. At the time I attended the University of Wyoming. I took grad school so seriously I contemplated suicide and nearly put myself into the mental hospital. I was only sober a year after having alcohol in my blood constantly for the previous sixteen years. My girlfriend had a baby, my daughter, just three months before I took off for Laramie. And there I was, a single father, baby in Kansas City, son of working-class people who prized a regular job over education, convinced I was a failure before I even started. I was frightened all the time. But I had to prove myself. I sought redemption like starved animals fight for food.
So, I overcompensated. I read hundreds of books for my studies—326, actually. “A” grades weren’t good enough. I needed to shine and I pressed myself. I was not a decent student. Focus escaped me. I gobbled text after text, absorbing vast amounts of information. But I lacked and missed the importance of the contemplative moment, that time when a scholar sits back and thinks about what he or she has read and organize it into a digestible narrative. I was like a library without a filing system.
Along with all the books I read for my studies, I read travel narratives and travel memoirs. I took stacks of them out of the university library. I swallowed them whole, one after the other. I dreamed of far-away places. Bruce Chatwin took me to the Tierra del Fuego and Australia. I learned the beauties of Afghanistan from Robert Byron. Brian Newby ushered me through Waziristan and down the Ganges. I rode the Blue Highways, traveled with Charley, and floated the Missouri River with Apikuni. Paul Theroux, that snotty and dismissive bastard, impressed the hell out of me—and I read all his books.
Then, Eddy Harris took me to Africa. It was a pivotal moment for me. Fear soaked my being. The weight of my dissolute past smothered me. Learning what adults are and what they do proved harder work than anything I’d done before. In Native Stranger, I accompanied Harris as he went from the north coast of the continent to the southern tip. Between these points, he encountered all the heartbreak and love of a place that is not one but many—lands, peoples, and, unfortunately, oppressive regimes. More importantly for me, he showed himself becoming a different, more mature, and loving person.
I burrowed into the library shelves and surfaced with Harris’ first book, Mississippi Solo: A River Quest. The river intrigued Harris, a St. Louis native, not merely because it was the river of his youth but because it was also the river of his history. He began his trip as the Mississippi does, in the small waters in the north. The river took him into the heart of the South, where black men don’t travel the river, where white men carry guns and grudges deadly to black men. The river, he writes, carries “sins and salvation, dreams and adventure and destiny.” If Harris’ story isn’t about facing fear, doing penance, and seeking oneself, I don’t know what is. And that’s what I thought when I read the first page of Mississippi Solo. This was a book about me
Yes, I understand Eddy is black and I am white. Our upbringings could not have been more distant from one another. Our family pasts were almost opposites. I grew up in the suburbs, Eddy in inner-city St. Louis. I possessed some advantages that Eddy did not. Eddy grew up in a gentle, loving house. Despite the violence of my childhood and the depth of my despair, I still had the privilege of degrading myself. Eddy’s relationship with his father carried him through difficult and dark moment. I don’t speak to my father. No one ever saw me at night and crossed the street.
I read as much of Harris’ work as I could get my hands on. His books South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride Through Slavery’s Old Back Yard and Still Life in Harlem, speak to me as Native Stranger and Mississippi Solo do. Here is man afraid but courageous, who knows that salvation comes only to those who seek it. They only discover they been saved by hindsight: They were delivered in the moment they stopped seeking and started living.
I’ve been lucky to meet Eddy, and I now associate the writer and his written messages with his personality. He is a good man, a kind soul, and gentle person who knows how to stand up for himself, be assertive, and command attention. He breaks through stereotypes, confounds his critics, and works all the time to remain true to himself. If he is scared, he is also courageous. He’s no one’s patsy. These things, all of them, that attract me to him. I have faith in Eddy Harris and know that his quest is a good one; not just for him, but for me and the rest of us, as well. I can call him a friend.
I am just as guilty as any white person about asking the only black guy in the room about his experience being black. To my knowledge, few Black Americans have asked white people for an all-encompassing assessment of their racial experience. In our first long conversation, I apologized to Eddy about asking the him black-guy questions. I wanted to know about him and how people treated him as a black man. Through the trials and errors of being a well-meaning and basically decent-hearted soul, I learned long ago, back in my drinking days, that a person—white, Black, Indian, Hispanic, Asian—can only tell me their experience and not that of the race. Eddy’s very conscious of being Black. He also doesn’t pretend to speak for Black people. He understands that he shares common racial experience with other Blacks, but he knows and is confident of himself as an individual struggling, working, and trying to make it on his own.
He was very understanding of me when we spoke about his Blackness. He knew that I could never know what it meant to be an outsider, the invisible man. But he entertained my questions and treated me like an equal, another writer seeking experience that would one day affect his writing. He taught me that messages of redemption, fear, sadness, melancholy, and joy, while coded differently along American racial fault lines, are universal. Being Black plays an important role in his writing. His books entail a Black man’s experience. But Eddy’s mastered the storyteller’s art. He relates tales of human emotion. His tales are American stories. That’s why his books say so much to me.
Long before I met Eddy, his writing played an important role in my life. It’s in part due to Eddy that I took off twenty years ago to walk to Helena, Montana, and canoe the Missouri River back to Kansas City. I’ve traveled extensively with my kids with the knowledge that whatever happened to us would bring us a little closer to our own redemptions. Due to his example, I wrote and published two books about my long trip and many shorter pieces about the journeys my kids and I have made. Due to his writing, too, I had the pluck to enter Ph.D. studies when I was 41, and due to his encouragement and goading, I earned that Ph.D. after long years working in other fields and doing dissertation at night when I was 52. I teach now, and often think of Eddy when standing in front of a classroom. Eddy’ example of not letting things bother him before their time has motivated me when I have had the duty and opportunity to speak in front of large crowds. Eddy doesn’t worry. He just gets up and does it. I can’t tell you how often I’ve “Eddy Harrissed” a presentation, interview, talk, or workshop I’ve led. When nervous or upset, I remember Eddy, his steady demeanor, his confidence. I take that on for myself and don’t worry about what the crowds think. I give it my best. That’s all I can do.
Eddy went back to the Mississippi twenty-five years after the journey he wrote about in Mississippi Solo. He rightly believed that his voyage would tell us more about our country, our rivers, and about being Americans. He took a talented people with him on his journey this time, including Emmy-winning cinematographer Neil Rettig, whose work has featured prominently on National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, and BBC. Joining Rettig is Emmy-winning documentary maker Mary Oliver Smith and National Geographic WILD editor, John Freeman. With their help, he produced a full-length feature about how an American man changes with time, how his perspective shifts, and how the people and the country around him transform but remain the same.
I have not seen the documentary but in snippets. Eddy’s attempting to sell the feature to a distribution company or television channel. His efforts on the film have run him to the edge of financial ruin. But he put his money to good use. The excerpts I’ve seen are professional and personal. The experts he employed on the film did their work the best they knew how. Every day, I think, this is the Eddy will sell the film and it will be available to the general public. Perhaps, some of the viewers will learn what I have from Eddy Harris. They will be better people. They will know more after the watch the film who they are, who we are as Americans.
Eddy lives in France these days. He has been able to publish in Europe, in the French language. Years ago, he found that his outlook doesn’t fit the typical Black American narrative American readers have come to expect. His success in France parallels those who have gone before him: Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. Like these Black Americans, he finds France a place where he can live outside the American racial experience. He seeks to be read as a writer and not as a Black American or merely as a Black writer.
Not only that, the French celebrate writers. He’s considered somebody because he writes. That’s all any of us can hope for. I keep thinking, well, maybe I should move to France, find myself a small village, and enjoy my status as someone who’s respected because he writes.
Eddy makes frequent trips to the United States. He still has close friends and family in his native St. Louis. He’s done residencies at prestigious universities, most recently William and Mary. He’s made speaking appearances in Kansas City and I’m arranging a workshop for him at the Writers Place, a Kansas City literary arts center. Whenever he’s in the states, he comes to Kansas City to visit me. It’s always a pleasure to have Eddy in my home with my family, for whom he has a great deal of affection. Due to our long acquaintance, he has lost his celebrity sheen with me and become a man, something I think he seeks to be with everyone.
When I think of Eddy, I can’t help but think just how he has changed my life. He encourages my literary efforts more than family, other writers, and my friends. I have the courage now to plant my ass in a chair, remain stoic, and fill the page from top to bottom. I am bold enough now to take the risk and put my writing out there for public consumption and criticism. I am braver and more spirited, not just in my writing life, but in my everyday activities. I am a better person for having Eddy Harris in my life.
Dr. Patrick Dobson has worked as a journalist, book editor, and union ironworker in Kansas City, MO. The University of Nebraska Press published his two travel memoirs, Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains (2009) and Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer (2015). He teaches American History, Latin American History, and Western Civilization at Johnson County Community College in nearby Overland Park, KS. His essays and poems have appeared in New Letters, daCunha, Kansas City Star, Indiana Voice Journal, Garo, JONAHmagazine, and other newspapers and literary magazines. His essays and travel pieces can be viewed at http://patrickdobson.com.