CNN's Don Lemon: 'We're living in two different realities as Black and White people'

CNN's Don Lemon during a televised townhall with Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) on CNN dedicated to LGBTQ issues in Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 10, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake
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Don Lemon, 55, is the host of "Don Lemon Tonight" on CNN and the author of the best-selling book "This Is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism." He lives in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Q: Can I first ask you about your nightly handoffs with Chris Cuomo? It's a bit of a lovefest that seems organic and authentic, but also intentional. By "intentional" I don't mean inauthentic, but it feels like at some point you both said, "We need people to see us saying I love you." Am I reading too much into that?

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A: Yes and no. I think we kind of realized it after we started doing it. It wasn't intentional in the beginning; it was just us doing a handoff. When Chris came on to prime time, the boss said, "I'd like there to be some interaction between shows." I took the opportunity as one of the only unscripted moments on the network all day and decided to just go there. Where else are we going to get that? Chris and I happen to be friends and have those conversations in real life. I thought the best thing was to have a conversation - sometimes about the news, sometimes not about the news - because that's what people want. To be honest, the handoff was supposed to be just a couple seconds. It was me extending the time and the producers yelling in my ear, "OK, move on," and me saying "No, people need to hear this. Let's talk."

That part is intentional on my part because it can go as short or as long as I want, because it's my hour. That was me deciding to defy the producers and push it as long as I want it to go. It was me in some way offering people a chance to see two people who love each other have honest conversations where you disagree, hold people accountable and still offer grace.

The "I love you" part - that's all Chris. He talks a good game, but he's a softy.

Q: Whenever your name gets mentioned in the circles I travel in, it's respectful and complimentary, but it also comes with the caveat that people think you have "transformed" - however people define that. Is that fair?

A: People can say want they want. If they want to believe that I've transformed, I'm OK with that. I would like to think I have found my groove. That I'm a better communicator. I am secure in my position, and I speak with even more authority than when I started. But if by saying that, people are saying I "wasn't Black enough" before, then that's certainly not true. Are you the same person that you were a few years ago? Let's hope not. We all evolve.

But I also think that people have become used to me now in that position, speaking from a position of authority, giving my point of view as an anchor, on prime time - especially a Black gay man. I think it took people a minute to get used to that. And just as it took them a minute, it also took me a minute.

Q: The introductory chapter of your book is in the form of a letter to your nephew about how we respond to this moment, and it ends, "Silence is no longer an option." Is there a single defining moment over the last years that got you to that point?

A: It's part of a progression, of evolving, growing older, also just being weary, saying, "Enough is enough." Especially after the sudden death of my sister in 2018, and after five years of talking about Donald Trump for two hours a night. Growing sick and tired - as my mom and grandmom would say - of the bulls--- and giving false equivalence to the bigotry, lies and hatred.

And speaking for the people who don't have agency, for marginalized people and especially for Black people. Look, I'm a Black man in America. Black people have a unique experience in this country, unlike any other, as do Native American people. So if I'm the only Black man on prime-time cable, I'm certainly going to speak for the people who don't have the privilege of the platform that I have. If I don't do it, who's going to do it?

Q: You've suggested that Trump was the president we deserved and probably a necessary and revealing wake-up call. Do you still think that?

A: Considering people's apathy to get involved in the political process, to pay attention to the political process, to go to the polls, their willingness to give so much attention to celebrity, I think that's what I meant by "the president we deserve." But there's also this false reality that we're living in a post-racial world after the election of Barack Obama. That was all bulls---. It was a wake-up call to White people who thought we were living in a nonracist world. We're living in two different realities as Black and White people. We knew, as Black people, what was lurking beneath the surface. I still believe that (Trump)was the necessary wake-up for America to realize just how racist it is.

Q: The George Floyd video - did you sense that it was something different, that it might be the spark of something?

A: Yes, but people forget that the video of Ahmaud Arbery was just as disturbing - just not as long. You had people who were not police officers, who just bogarted their way into a position of authority and hunted this man in broad daylight and shot him with a shotgun and thought it was OK to do it, and someone videotaped it. We showed it on television. We saw him die on television. That was disturbing enough. And this was it in a nutshell. And it was 9 minutes and 29 seconds of a police officer really believing that he was God and had the absolute right to snuff the life from someone. And I think I realized that it was different for a few reasons. One, we got to see it. Two, for how long it was. Three, he was begging for his life and for his mother. Four, just the nonchalance, the apathy from the police officer was just unbelievable. "I'm going to do this, and f--- you." Taking his Taser out and daring the citizens who wanted to help, like, "I dare you. This can be you."

But the George Floyd video, because it was a police officer, and Black people had been saying for so long, "We're being beaten up and killed by police officers, and no one is paying attention. This must stop."

And last - this is very, very important - we were all locked in our homes because of a worldwide pandemic and had nothing else to pay attention to, so we sat there in horror and watched it all on our devices, over and over and over, and we kept seeing this Black man die as he was calling out for his mom. It was an equalizer in the way that it made us all vulnerable and empathetic at the same time. A collective vulnerability and empathy. We all became human, and we saw the humanity - finally - in this Black man who was getting killed by a police officer. Now, is that lasting? That's another question. But for that moment that was the impact.

But we were also doing it during a time when we may have been sick ourselves, or our next neighbor was sick, our moms, or any loved one. We didn't know what was going to happen the next day, or the next minute, or if we were going to have a job. Some people couldn't pay their bills, some people were hungry.

Q: If a single piece of video can have that kind of global impact - and we all recognize that - have newsrooms taken into account the cumulative impact of seeing things like that every night on the American people? Or will this be seen as some singular moment?

A: I think it's seen as a singular moment. Look at the verdict. When have we had that? Look at the unrest. It's a singular moment - unless and until we have another one. I write in my book that it's the new blaxploitation. We constantly see Black bodies being killed. How long are we going to have to hold Black bodies up to get justice? That is a constant struggle every single night. That is a journalistic dilemma that we have to deal with every night. How much do we show? How much should you hear? Should it be wallpaper? Does it diminish the impact of it by people becoming immune to it? We do struggle with those discussions - and we should struggle with them.

I don't think that George Floyd will be the last video that we see like that, unfortunately, but I do think that it is the most impactful one that we'll see in a very long time.

Q: The subtitle of the book is "What I Say to My Friends About Racism." Taking that part literally, how much of what happens next in America needs to happen at that level: friends talking to friends about racism?

A: It's funny, I thought you were going to ask me what Larry Wilmore asked me: "Did you leave out a word, Don? Do you mean 'what I say to my White friends'?"

These are conversations that I want to have with people I know. You can have conversations with people you don't know, but it's not the same conversation. I think that is where we're going to make a difference. You have to have relationships with people, whether you agree with them or not. It doesn't mean you let them off scot-free; you must hold them accountable. And I know people hate to hear this in this environment, but you have to give people some grace.

Whether we like, as Black people, being the teachers or helping to guide White people through racism - it's uncomfortable sometimes, it's tiring - unfortunately to some degree you have to do it, because otherwise they may take the wrong actions, and we want people to do it the right way. And the right way is by understanding and seeing our humanity.

I want to be in relationships with people so they can see my humanity, hear my voice, see my face, feel my pain. I want to be in relationships with people so they can understand who I am and where I'm coming from. They're not just seeing me as "other" or that person that I need to have this conversation with, but "my friend Don" who happens to be Black, and we're having this conversation. So that when I hold them to account they know that it's coming from a good place. Much as I do with my friend Chris (Cuomo). Sometimes I know he doesn't like what I'm saying, but that's too bad. We have a relationship with one another where we see one another's humanity. I know his family, he knows mine. We are equal human beings and not just "others."

Q: Why James Baldwin as an influence for both your format and your inspiration?

A: Because James Baldwin was a Black gay man in America, and his writing, especially "The Fire Next Time," has had the biggest impact on me in terms of race and sexuality as anything in my life. When I was a young man starting off I picked up "The Fire Next Time," and I read it over and over, and I picked up every book I could find in the Baldwin canon. He's had the biggest impact on me. He's the writer I wish I could write as well as, which I don't think anyone ever will. His outspokenness, his directness, his brilliance - he's everything I would want to be. The title for my book is not me trying to be James Baldwin; it's an ode to Baldwin. I'm not putting myself on a level with him. I respect and revere him. But I also wanted the book to be beautifully written so I could honor him, and I hope I did that.

I was asked by another interviewer why James Baldwin was getting so much shine lately. James Baldwin has always gotten shine among Black people. I think Whites back in the '60s and '70s knew him and revered him, but now I think he's been rediscovered mostly by White people, not by Black people.

Q: Is there a novel in you next?

A: I'm doing a graphic novel now, which is even tougher than doing this book, and doing a children's book, which is about my dogs - one white, one black. My partner and I are Black and White. I thought it might be a way to make it palatable to talk about adoption and acceptance and gay parenting and just about accepting people where they are and loving people where they are and for who they are.

I would love to do a plain old novel. But that's a lot of work, and I don't know if I'm that prolific, or that good a writer. Because if I do it I would want it be beautiful and I want it to be impactful and I want people to love it, which is what everyone wants when they write a book.

Q: This book seems to be part of an ongoing process of putting yourself out there - bit by bit, revealing more personal things about yourself. Is that something you've wanted to, or something you've felt like you've had to do?

A: I feel like I've had to do that because I don't think America has seen enough people like me. I don't think America intimately knows enough people like me. I would love America to see Black people, especially Black gay men as - and I hate this word - normal, and as human beings and as part of the culture. That we have our vulnerabilities and our struggles, but we also have our successes. We love, we hurt, and we go through trials and tribulations just like anyone else. I don't know if America sees Black people and especially Black gay men as fully human, and as deserving of the American Dream.

I put myself out there because that's the only way I know to do it. Not just for White America, but Black America as well. For young Black men and boys, people of any color who happen to be gay, to be empowered and see me and say, "If he can do it, I can do it." That their existence and their being is normal. That's it.

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