Light the Fire

Don Lemon speaks with Purist about creating everlasting change through systemic overhaul.
Don Lemon’s book invites people of all races to think critically and set positive examples for future generations. Photography by Cathrine White

By Cristina Cuomo

Don Lemon anchors Don Lemon Tonight on CNN and led the network’s coverage of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police and the protests that followed. A news veteran of Chicago, he joined CNN in September 2006 and has reported on the scene for breaking-news stories including the Charleston church shooting, the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the George Zimmerman trial, among others. Lemon is known for holding politicians and public officials accountable and for his compassionate, intuitive interviews with everyday people. He’s the author of a new book, This is the Fire, and host of the podcast Silence is Not An Option.

Cristina Cuomo: Don, you set up your beautifully written book in the same way James Baldwin began The Fire Next Time in 1963, with a letter written to your nephew, a promise for a better future ending with this passage: “Soon you’ll see the difference between those who preach, those who march and those who maintain a deferential silence while the bullhorn of racism blares the same foul tropes it’s been sounding for 400 years. I promise you true, because I love you, I will not stand among the silent. Silence is no longer an option.” What compelled you to write this important book right now?

Don Lemon: We’re living almost every single aspect of what I wrote about in the book. I talked about policing, reparations, images in the media for Black people, representation and white supremacy. As we all sat in our homes during the summer of 2020 because we were in the middle of a deadly pandemic in the middle of quarantine, we saw the death of George Floyd play out in front of our faces and we couldn’t turn away from it. We were all vulnerable at the time, and I felt I had to say something. I had people who I love in my life who happen to be white, people I love like you and Chris [Cuomo of CNN] and many people among them were saying, “Where do we go from here? How do we correct this? I don’t want my kids to grow up in a world like this. I don’t have the vocabulary to be able to talk to them, Don. You’re my friend and help me.” And that’s what the book was about.

CC: You write that this book is a springboard to one’s call to purpose. What are the steps in finding that purpose?

DL: It’s listening first, then being vulnerable and open. Then you can begin to have these conversations about race where it’s not so uncomfortable, where you don’t have to worry about someone thinking that you may be racist or biased or have some unconscious bias. Because if you do that, then you begin to change, and then the world will begin to change. But the only way that we can do that is if we develop relationships with people who don’t look like us. If you’re white, get a Black friend. If you’re Black, get a white friend. If you’re Black, get an Asian friend, and so on. But we need to surround ourselves and start communicating and having relationships with people who don’t look like us and who don’t think like us and who aren’t in our immediate circle every single day. And I really do think that’s the only way. So, once you do that, once you read the book, start to have the conversations, be open, listen, then you must do the work or nothing is going to change.

CC: What was a pivotal time in your life when you decided having a public voice was your vehicle to tackle—or more like ass-kick—systemic racism?

DL: I set out to be a journalist. Being at the matrix of what’s happening in the world every single day forced me into having this point of view and wanting to be able to change things. The news business evolved, and I evolved with it. I realize the influence that I have on people every single day. Being in this role and being the only person who looks like me in prime time, there are certain responsibilities and expectations of me that I feel I have to live up to.

“It’s listening first, then being vulnerable and open,” says Lemon. Courtesy of Little, Brown & Company

CC: In the book, you say, “The way you treat others is not about who they are, it’s about who you are.” You talk about how to avoid raising racist children through education and rewriting our textbooks. But what can be done at home to become antiracist as a parent and a grown-up?

DL: As a parent, you’re the teacher all the time. You are the pack leader. As the pack leader, what does your life look like? Whom do you surround yourself with? Is it all people who look just like you and think just like you? Whatever that is, your kids see that and they imitate it. They’re a reflection of you. If that’s the case, you need to reach out when you drop your kids off at school. If you’re in the pickup line, say hello to Ms. Sanchez and say, “I’m having a barbecue on Sunday. Why don’t you guys come over.” Or Mr. Williams and say, “Hey, our sons play on the same baseball team. Maybe we should have some sort of game and cookout where we get to know each other.” You must be responsible enough to teach them diversity and inclusion. You also have to think about the traditions in your life, whether it’s history, whether it’s religion or whatever you’ve been taught. Is this the truth? Has this been whitewashed? Why are we decorating these eggs for Easter? What is this tradition about? Why do we have a figure in our home or a picture in our home that looks like Jesus is a blond surfer from Southern California? Is that real? No, it’s not. Rethink all of those things. That truthful conclusion will help you with the language and tools to be able to teach your kids.

Lemon is an American patriot, raising his voice for racial justice in the U.S. Photography by Cathrine White

CC: You write, “Americans are deeply divided people. Isolated in conflicting bubbles of information and misinformation. At this moment our democracy hangs in the balance, our climate is at the brink of cataclysm and our civil rights are succumbing to chaos. If we hope to make a tectonic shift in how this country functions on a daily household level, we have to take this fight back to where it began—money. And this is where I actually find a shred of hope.” What do you mean by this?

DL: Because money talks, quite honestly. If you cut off people’s lifeline or if you hinder it in any way, you get their attention. Much the same thing is happening when it comes to the voter-suppression laws and companies around the country. People are seeing companies saying, “No, this goes against the values of our company and we are not cosigning this. We’re going to move our event out of your city, state, or whatever it is.” And the people who want the suppression to happen are fighting it tooth and nail and they’re upset. Even on a personal structure, if it’s bad for business and you can’t feed your family or you can’t continue to operate in a terrible way and it affects your business and your savings and all of that, it’s going to get your attention. And if you can’t do the right thing in your heart, it’s certainly going to force you to do the right thing. Much the same way as legislation does. You may not be able to change people’s hearts, but you can change their behavior because they have to act a certain way.