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CNN’s Don Lemon on Trump, the Death Throes of White Supremacy, and James Baldwin

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Don Lemon, host of CNN’s Tonight with Don Lemon, has become a familiar voice of the day’s news. In his new book, This Is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism, Lemon weaves little-known moments in American history such as Louisiana’s 1811 German Coast Slave Uprising and its brutal suppression with his own life story, the Baton Rouge-born youngest and only son of a close-knit family family which urged him to push against the constraints on Black life. The book ends with predictions about the American future, a suggested reading list and what to watch homework.

TIME spoke with him in February and this interview has been edited for clarity.

Why this book—a social commentary about racism—now?

I just didn’t want to write a book that was about Trump, [that] in some way capitalized on what he was doing. Every day in the news I was covering what he was doing and that was enough of a release for me to be able to get it off my chest.

But, there wasn’t enough of a release for the indignities that we saw George Floyd suffer on camera, and what we were finding out about the details of Breonna Taylor, and about what happened in Charlottesville [in 2017].

Your book, beginning with the title, references James Baldwin, one of the most searing social commentators to ever write. It’s even structured like Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. That’s a bold choice.

James Baldwin is my hero. I relate to him. He’s a Black man who happened to be gay living in America. And he’s a Black man who happens to be gay who is also one of, if not the best, writers, of all time.

And so this book was really an ode to Baldwin. I’m not trying to be Baldwin. No one can be Baldwin, but this was also the first author that opened my eyes. And The Fire Next Time has really influenced who I am as a journalist.

The degree to which he was honest with his audience. He was honest about his sexuality. He was honest that he loved this country so much he had to move [to France]. He was honest about telling white people what they needed to do in order to overcome the stain of slavery and racism. He was honest to Black people about as much as you may hate it, you’re going to have to love these people, and you’re going to have to educate these people about who they are, and about also about who you are.

You wrote this is a time to have a point of view, not just an opinion as a journalist. Why?

I think we have to stop pretending that journalists are white spaces between the black letters that are on the page. Journalists aren’t inanimate objects, they’re human beings.

I have always said that everyone has a lens through which they view the world. So I am a Black man who came from the South, who is gay. And to pretend those qualities don’t exist, I think, is doing a disservice not only to yourself, but the people you’re trying to serve as a journalist. And so I think it’s important to tell people what’s the lens you’re viewing the world from, and then have them understand it.

I think there’s a difference between an opinion, and a point of view. I’m giving my opinion when I say, Well, I don’t like that couch. With my point of view, I’m looking at this in a certain way that you’re not, but it doesn’t change the color of the couch.

I would imagine one of the real challenges is the world has a record of how your perspective has changed. How would you describe your evolution around issues related to race?

I don’t think that has changed much. I think maybe the interpretation of it from the audience has changed.

If you continue on with life then, one would expect to grow as a human being and as a professional. I would say the way that I express myself and the way that I communicate, what I choose to elevate and what I choose not to, I think maybe, that it has evolved. But I don’t think the way that I see the world, or my core beliefs about racial justice and African Americans in this country and our plight, I don’t think that’s really evolved.

One example that struck me as a change: There’s a passage in the book where you describe the way that members of Black families shape shift, a kind of ode to non-traditional family structure. But that’s very different than in 2013 when you said one of the five things Black people needed to do was stop having children out of wedlock.

I think I didn’t say that. If I can remember correctly, I said that you should think about it before. You should be able to provide for a child before you have one, is what I said.

I didn’t say people should stop doing it because I was someone who was born out of wedlock and would have much preferred to have a traditional family. A Leave it to Beaver father and son, in the house. Yes, even my mother, who was a single mother, wishes that we had a more traditional family structure which, we did, after my mom married. I think the way I say it may not have been, may not have been understood. And perhaps I could have said it differently.

And, perhaps I do see some things differently. But, I’ve always been an advocate for my people. I am the only Black man in primetime on cable. And the things I say are going to get more attention perhaps than anyone else simply because of who I am, and my platform. But that goes with the territory, and I welcome it.

In another passage you wrote about loss, how it changes us in ways not always immediately clear. You wrote the sudden loss of your sister rendered you less hopeful. In what ways?

I’m not sure if it’s less hopeful, maybe that’s just the way I’m processing it. I think what you are seeing in me is a sense of urgency that I’ve realized more than I had before the death of my sister, is that there’s an urgency of now. And that’s what I’m experiencing, that life can be over in a second. George Floyd’s life can be over in a second. Ahmaud Arbery’s life can be over in a second. Breonna Taylor’s life can be over in a second, Heather Heyer too.

No moment is promised. And unless we tackle this thing now, it will continue to go on.

And it’s not just going to continue from the people who are boldly racist, who are boldly bigoted, who are boldly anti-Semitic, who are boldly misogynistic. It’s going to be the people who think that they are not most of the time, because they can’t see it. Even the people you love who may think that they are woke and progressive and liberal, sometimes those people can be the hardest to get to see their bias.

One thing in the book is so hopeful that I was baffled. You wrote we’re witnessing the death throes of white supremacy. Why?

Because the world is a smaller place and the world is a more informed place. Not only can we see the degradation of people, of any marginalized person or people, but we can also see it in our hands on a device.

And I think when you see a group of insurrectionists enter the United States Capitol, try to overturn an election that they have been told was stolen from them by Black people in big urban areas in this country. I think that is the ultimate sign of fear. And the people who act that way, who were in Charlottesville, who are at the Capitol, and protesting against protesters out on the streets, those people are acting out of a place of fear. Because, they know that this is pretty much the end for them. That doesn’t mean that it’s gonna happen over a year. It could take 20, 30,40 years.

Is it inevitable?

Imagine if you are used to being the preeminent voice, and all of a sudden, you are not that. You are in fear that you are not going to have the best access to everything, be heard first, make the most money, have the power. That’s, going to change just from demographics.

And once those demographics change, that means our voting systems change. That means our elected representatives will change. That means the laws will change. And that means our ability to be able to create generational wealth, that’s going to change as well. So, once all of that changes, the power structure changes. The economy changes. And so, it’s the death throes.

In the book, you compared Trump to a symptom alerting internal disease. What is the diagnosis Trump reveals?

He’s a clinical symptom of a white male patriarchy. He’s a clinical symptom of white supremacy. He’s the clinical symptom of bigotry. He’s a clinical symptom of a regression, and wanting to live in the past and not wanting to evolve. He is the clinical symptom of voter suppression. He’s the clinical symptom of everything that is wrong with America.

And it’s time for us to go into the oncologists office and for us, possibly, to figure out whatever the cure might be whether it is, you know, physical extraction, or whether it is some sort of natural healing.

Well, if I stick with your medical theme, one of your prescriptions is to put an end to “timorous” calls to “get back to normal.” Why is that important?

I want to be very careful about how they say this. It [the United States] was never great. It was always seeking a more perfect union. It was never perfect. And so I think we have to stop pretending like in the past there was some greatness and some place that America had reached where everybody was fine.

People who are afraid to talk about white supremacy and afraid to talk about black people and afraid to talk about immigration and afraid to talk about all of the things, about how women are treated in this society, and afraid to talk about, or hesitant, I should say, to talk about slavery, we have to stop doing that. These conversations really aren’t hard. They’re quite easy if you don’t put this sort of patina, this layer on top, that everything has to be hunky dory and okay.

I think there has to be a partnership between people who disagree with each other and us as citizens and as Americans. But I also think that we need to speak to each other. Very clearly, very forcefully and get our point of view across. Because, if it doesn’t happen now, it’s never going to happen. We’re just going to keep tiptoeing and tiptoeing, until we fall off the cliff.

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