What Do Black Audiences Really Want From Don Lemon?

With his new book, the CNN anchor thinks he knows exactly how to reach them — by being who he’s always been. The first time I became aware of Don Lemon was on June 27, 2013, the day he agreed with Bill O’Reilly.

Responding to remarks by President Obama about the recent murder of 17-year-old Travon Martin, O’Reilly had taken to his nightly show on Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor, to argue that the “disintegration of the African-American family” is due to “violence” and “chaos” in Black communities. A few days later, on a segment of his CNN show he called “No Talking Points,” Lemon decided to re-play the tape from O’Reilly, a rant that MSNBC’s Chris Hayes had described as “super racist.”

Lemon not only agreed with the Fox News host but took it a step further. He said on air that O’Reilly didn’t go far enough, and proceeded to provide five points for Black people to fix ourselves: 1. Pull up our pants. 2. Stop using the N-word. 3. Respect where you live and pick up your trash. 4. Finish school 5. Implement proper family planning.

The call to attention felt like a redux of Bill Cosby’s 2004 “Pound Cake” speech, which Adam Serwer has described as “excoriating the black poor for failing to live up to the promise of the civil rights movement.” But Lemon’s words hit differently. Unlike Cosby, Lemon was not saying this at an awards ceremony for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, but on national television.

The year Lemon gave these pointers coincided with the beginning of Barack Obama’s second term in office, a historical event that inspired some to believe in a post-racial future, yet the murder of Trayvon Murder brought conversations about racial profiling to a new generation. But the shift in his public persona and politics has been so jarring that some, such as far-right political commentator Dinesh D’Souza, have asked, “What happened to the Don Lemon of 2013?”

He’s still there. But nowadays, we’re seeing a different side of Don Lemon, a side that in 2021 has delighted the same Black people he criticized eight years before. Don Lemon has become quite the star on social media, particularly in Black digital communities. The venom that Don Lemon has directed toward Donald Trump, as well as other far-right conservatives, has been gratifying and vindicating to watch. Reporters, such as those on The Grio, have asked, “Has Don Lemon Gone from ‘Sunken’ to Saved?” They’ve praised his blackening as his politics have leaned farther left in the Trump era. Don Lemon has not only emerged from the ashes of intraracial criticism c. 2013 but has become a bona fide star who wields great respect both on and offline.

This week, Lemon published his memoir, This Is the Fire: What I Say To My Friends About Racism, but if you think this book is going to provide listicles to convince your friends to “get it,” you’re wrong. Instead, what you’ll find in this 200-page book is prose that’s both tender and ferocious. Similar to the structure of James Baldwin’s The Fire This Time, Lemon addresses his nephew on racism in America, though his book is not exclusively focused on Black men and the challenges they face. Lemon also incorporates his family’s tangled, genealogical history, his professional highs and lows, grief, frustration, and of course, the Trump presidency. Fire is a consistent theme in this memoir, and it follows behind other critically acclaimed books that have kept the flame ablaze, such as Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Jesmyn Ward’s anthology, The Fire This Time. But Lemon makes his use of metaphor explicit: “This is the fire. We’re in it. JFK and Obama led us to the rainbow; Trump forced us into the fire. And then he poured gasoline on it.”

Don Lemon has not only emerged from the ashes of intraracial criticism, he has become a bona fide star who wields great respect both on and offline.

When I spoke with Lemon through Zoom back in January, I could tell almost immediately he delivers his words as thickly as the Louisiana humidity in which he was raised: “I’m interested in doing something that’s going to make a difference especially for my people, for everyone, but especially for my people.” When George Floyd was lynched in late May 2020, Lemon says he was inspired to write this book because everyone was looking to him for answers on what to do and say next. In a conversation with Reverend William Barber on Lemon’s Saturday show, Lemon vented his frustrations about the flurry of texts and calls he received from the glitterati. “Get on television or do something and help these young people instead of sitting in your mansions and doing nothing,” he said on-air.

Lemon told me the idea to write a memoir had been with him for years. “I needed to firm it like a wine,” he said. The truth is, Lemon has been approached to write books from publishers ever since Trump targeted him as a public enemy, tweeting “Don Lemon, the dumbest man on television (with terrible ratings!).” At the time, CNN was the most-watched ever in terms of total viewers and key demographics, and CNN Tonight With Don Lemon had its best ratings ever, surpassing MSNBC primetime numbers among adults aged 25–54. But Lemon saw no utility in framing a book around Trump’s insults even if, according to industry professionals, that would have meant pre-destined bestseller status. He wanted to engage on his own terms, as he does on his show every night.

Lemon was the baby boy in the family whose “dark russet color rich” members communicated with each other in their own lexicon through “drums, dances, and nonverbal signals.” As a student at Baker High School in Baton Rouge, Lemon submerged himself in James Baldwin’s oeuvre, breezing through works like Giovanni’s Room and The Price of the Ticket. This love and appreciation for Baldwin carries over into the present day. As a tradition, Lemon reads an original edition of The Fire Next Time, complete with dog-eared pages and scribbled marginalia, multiple times a year.

When it was time for Lemon’s own book, he decided to pull apart and piece back together what it means to be a Black person in America. This Is the Fire is more than a call-and-response; a portion of the book is a genealogical study of Lemon’s familial history through the sugarcanes of Louisiana plantations, through the racist literacy tests of the twentieth century, to the triumphs hard-earned through class and educational mobility.

What cannot be understated about Lemon’s memoir is his love and reverence for the Black women in his life. He sweetly writes of his grandmother Mame’s culinary talents and his earnestness in helping her learn how to read. She regularly speaks of Lemon’s beautiful Blackness, even though it was not easy for him to absorb that conviction. His mother Katherine, who he calls the “Black Della Street,” travels with him on a transformative and harrowing voyage to the Slave Coast in Ghana.

Lemon’s most influential relative was his beloved sister Leisa. The passages dedicated to her arrested my heart. The oldest of the family, Leisa taught Don how to dress, drive, and understand the importance of money and finances. She was the rebel, the family’s own Angela Davis. When Lemon moved to New York and began his work at CNN, she remained his biggest fan from afar; she wore a CNN T-shirt so often that the letters began to fade.

While he was at work, Don learned that Leisa died from an accidental drowning in a pond near her home in Livingston Parish, Louisiana. “Pain, instantaneous and all-encompassing, travels the axis of your body,” he writes. “Shock constricts your throat and leaves a baffled white noise in your brain. When I ask Lemon about Leisa, he slows down to gather himself. “When I was reading the audio for the book, I had to read that segment and I could not get through it… I realized what a tough time that was for me.”

This grief would pierce the boundary between Lemon’s journalistic work and his private life. When Lemon interviewed the brother of Stephon Clark, who was shot and killed by two members of the Sacramento Police Department in 2018, the conversation wasn’t going well. The brother, Stevante, had attempted to redirect the conversation to criticize the media; it wasn’t until Don opened up about the loss of his sister that Stevante softened. (“We love you, Don Lemon! Black people love you!” Stevante shouted as Lemon finished the interview.) Their shared grief made the tide turn not only for Stevante, but for many other Black Americans. “Don’s voice is so clear, sharp, and passionate that it is unmistakable,” says his CNN co-worker Abby Phillips. “He’s real — both as a person and as a journalist. He keeps the same energy on air and off.”

Lemon is present in our homes every single night. When I hear him speak truth to power, I might forget he is a CNN commentator.

When I bring up Lemon’s Twitter popularity, I wonder if through his coyness he believes that I am exaggerating his reach. Sure, he has over 1 million followers on the platform, but he tries not to go down the social media rabbit hole because of the anti-black and homophobic swipes he’s received there. Dan Abrams of Mediaite once called the anchor “openly Black,” which Lemon later crafted into a satirical moment on his show. I knew exactly what Abrams was alluding to because it’s the same sentiment Dinesh D’Souza had referred to: What these men believed to be Don Lemon’s sudden disavowal of white interests. If Lemon had remained Black only in complexion, but never in rhetoric or passion, then neither of these people would imply that his personhood had been hidden away.

This is often what we as a society expect of Black public figures, for them to be as inoffensive as possible so their palatability and profitability do not suffer. Historically, we are not kind to Black public figures who flex their multidimensional selves, like Muhammad Ali’s athleticism and activism, or Colin Kaepernick’s. But Don Lemon is present in our homes every single night. When I hear him speak truth to power, I might forget he is a CNN commentator. He could be an uncle or an older cousin; he could be one of my fellow Harlemite neighbors expressing the frustration that we all feel but never think we could get away with on national television. If Black people’s rage with Trump’s America were to be channeled into a large pipe, Don Lemon is the valve that released it. Our most primal sensations have flooded into the mainstream with him as our conduit.

The radical Don Lemon we see today has always been a part of his selfhood. Perhaps the Trump presidency summoned it to the forefront, even if Lemon refused to make Trump his focus. Or perhaps it’s been fermenting just as long as his book has, and now it’s finally ready to be appreciated for what it is. Lemon tells me he now recognizes there are some conversations about Black people that should be contained within Black spaces, which is undoubtedly true. He wonders if whether or not his suggestions in 2013 were a misstep for the wrong place and time. “People grow and evolve. People are not just one-dimensional,” he says. “I can’t say that I was as evolved then as I am now because that’s not how life works. I think I’m learning possibly how to be a better communicator.”

What a relief it is that this gay Black man is someone we as a community and a country did not discard several years ago. If there is a case to be made that public figures can recover after a screwup by growing and evolving, I can’t think of a better example than Don Lemon.

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