Don Lemon's audacious study of racism – and love
Don Lemon’s new memoir is an audacious and improbable book by a remarkable man. “We must summon the courage to love people who infuriate us, because we love the world we share,” he writes, near the start.
Relatively young, a short 20 years ago, the CNN anchor was almost unknown. How then, without seeming arrogant or pompous, does he place his life and his experience beside the best-known champions from the pantheon of Black freedom fighters? Invoking the zeal and courage of Dr King and Sojourner Truth, portraying even the proscribed accomplishments of Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in the same light of heroic survival, his is a voice as essential for our time as Ta-Nehisi Coates and as compelling as Caroline Randall Williams.
Lemon was initially a Republican, he tells us, from a time in his Louisiana homeland when Republicans were still pro-civil rights. He has taken a circuitous route to ardent Black activism. He revealed three sensational secrets in a 2011 memoir, Transparent, and seemed destined to become a media star akin to Oprah Winfrey. But his nightly broadcasts as the only African American anchor in prime time, his Zoom chats and podcast on racism have been calculated towards his rise. Affectingly, he appeals to a growing fanbase by relating that success notwithstanding, his was a life as troubled as their own.
For one thing, his parents hadn’t been legally wed. His mother, working for his dad as a legal secretary, was married to another man, his father to another woman. His dad died when Lemon was nine and his divorced mom remarried. His family were loving and even his relationship with his stepfather was good. But he realized he was a “double negative” – gay and Black – living in the south, undoubtedly confused by childhood sexual assaults at the hands of a friend of his mother. He overcame all of this but one media instructor later told him: “I don’t know why you’re here. You’ll never be a newscaster.”
But he was, and he took off. And then, around 2014, he seemed to change. Out of the blue, he was hectoring Black youth on air to “pull up their pants!” Denouncing a rebel fashion which endures on account of its effectiveness at pissing off old people, particularly old white authority figures? One wondered, was he embracing Bill Cosby’s “respectability” political stand? Admonishing youth about the importance of being married before starting a family, even endorsing the value of New York’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing, many reasoned Lemon must be trolling for ratings from the enemy. Some denounced him as an “Uncle Tom”.
The change of Lemon’s disappointing trajectory began before Trump. Certainly the threat the former president posed helped to radicalize someone who often seems happiest finding and presenting both sides. Trump’s recurring slur of “stupid”, alternating with, “the stupidest!”, was consistently met with good-natured laughter and ever more incisive analysis. Trump was Lemon’s trial by fire. White-hot, through it he was refined. From a mere Black pundit he was transformed into a tested, un-cowed combatant in the struggle for civil rights.
Beginning with a cautionary letter to his nephews and nieces with his white fiancé, Tim Malone, Lemon purposefully emulates his hero, James Baldwin. Explaining the killing of George Floyd, Lemon deliberately imitates a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew in 1963. It is a preamble to a plea to learn all one can about the past. He warns of the omnipresence of patriarchal white supremacy, the west’s original sin.
“Racism is a cancer that has been metastasizing throughout the land ever since Columbus showed up,” he states, making an excellent argument for replacing all memorials to Columbus with tributes to Frank Sinatra.
Elucidating on the extent to which the wealth and might of America was derived from land appropriated from Native Americans and labor coerced from red, brown and especially enslaved Black Americans, he notes that even enterprises not directly involved in slavery benefited from the exploitative system.
Lemon extolls the awakening of descendants of Robert E Lee and other Confederates, who advocate removing monuments often so noble-looking one would swear they depicted honorable men. As I might, he challenges the bestselling author Isabel Wilkerson, saying of her celebrated new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, “Why not just call it out as racism?”
Eager for the resolution of a normal life, Lemon is more trusting than some, less certain of the dark motives of the white clerk who denied him admittance “due to Covid” but then welcomed a white woman inside his store. He concedes the usefulness of Wilkerson’s way of removing the paralyzing sting of blame, recriminations and shame from racism, with caste. Doing so, both seem to be forgetting that like the concept of mental illness, handicaps or retardation, the malady of racism is so awful compared with the alternative, no matter what it’s called, that term is sure to be seen as hateful.
Ending, Lemon muses of how he and Tim speak of race, sometimes disagreeing but always finding their way home to the love they share. This gets us back to the book’s beginning. And that’s what makes this slight work so counterintuitive.
I used to marvel at how, with all he’d faced and withstood, Martin Luther King not only expected whites to do the right thing but himself managed somehow not to hate the guts of every white person who ever lived. It was a revelation to read about how, as undergraduates, King and Betty Moitz, a white student, fell madly in love. They met each other’s parents and nearly ran away. Lemon and Malone share this sort of passion. It unites them in a way that assures them, as it must have King, that if crazy love is a possibility, so is alliance. In the pages of This is the Fire, so is brotherhood.
This is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends about Racism is published in the US by Little Brown
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