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CNN's Don Lemon Gets Personal In New Book 'This Is The Fire'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Don Lemon spends his weeknights on CNN covering and framing the public's understanding of everything from Donald Trump's presidency to the ongoing racial reckoning. In his new book, "This Is The Fire: What I Say To My Friends About Racism," Lemon takes a personal look at the legacy of slavery and racism in America and explains what he'd like to see as the way forward for a divided country.

Don Lemon, welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

DON LEMON: Thank you, Lulu. It's a pleasure to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 1963, James Baldwin published "The Fire Next Time," which contains a letter from the author to his nephew. You begin your book with a letter to your nephew. I'd like you to read the first part of that letter.

LEMON: Yeah.

(Reading) May 25, 2020. Dear Trishad (ph), today I heard a dying man call out to his mama, and I wept for the world that will soon belong to you. I know what comes next as surely as I know the Mississippi rolls down to the sea. The weeping passes, and rage takes hold. The rage burns out, and blame begins. The blame bounces back and forth, and promises are made. The promises wither, and complacency returns. And the complacency stays. It stagnates like a lullaby on autoplay until another man dies facedown on another street in another city, and the weeping begins again.

That's how I started the book.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about why you wrote this book and about why you started it with this letter.

LEMON: So as the events of the summer of 2020 culminated with George Floyd being killed in the middle of a street for everyone to see as we were sitting at home in quarantine in the middle of a pandemic, I realized that this was the fire that James Baldwin was talking about, especially after very fine people on both sides in Charlottesville, Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down as he's jogging down a street in Brunswick, Ga., Breonna Taylor being killed in her bed and then George Floyd dying.

And so I sat down, and this book poured out of me. And I could have written, Lulu, a number of books during the Trump administration because every time the president would tweet about me or say something offhanded about me or some backhanded way, someone would reach out and say, why don't you write a book? I didn't want to do that because I'm not a political person, and I didn't want to write a political book. And this book is about being human. It's about unity rather than division. And that's a book that I wanted to write.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you think Trump was obsessed, in a way, with you? I mean, you were someone who drew his eye a lot.

LEMON: I think it's quite obvious. I am a gay Black man who has a platform and who speaks truth to power. I'm not a Democrat nor a Republican. And I think initially, Donald Trump thought through his interviews with me that he could try to co-opt me, and he didn't. And when I think he realized that he wasn't going to be able to co-opt me over on his side to - you know, not to give him a tough interview or to hold him accountable, I think his play was to demonize me because that played with his base. It was very popular with his racist base.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I can imagine you must have gotten a lot of hate for that. I don't even want to look...

LEMON: A lot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...At what your, you know, inbox or - and social media mentions look like. But in this book, you say to your Black brothers and sisters, we must swallow our righteous wrath and forgive, if not forget. That might feel to some people that this isn't the time for that. The wrath is righteous and shouldn't be swallowed.

LEMON: Well, I'm not saying that people have to compromise their morals. And I'm not saying that people have to squelch their own fire and passion. That's not what I'm saying at all. And I do believe that Black People in this country, especially African Americans, have grown impatient with, well, take your time. Be patient. I think that the time for that has passed.

But we are honestly going to have to help our white brothers and sisters try to figure this thing out because, if you grow out of American soil, you can't help but have biases. And quite honestly, you can't help to have some issues of race. But I think African Americans, quite frankly, are going to have to help our brothers and sisters deal with it. And I know that's uncomfortable to hear, but I really do think that. But I also understand the frustration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that's the message to your Black brothers and sisters. But you also have a message to your white brothers and sisters, as you just say, which is, stop saying you aren't racist. You know, stop trying to defend yourself against something that you benefit from. Society is racist. You have to work hard to change it.

LEMON: You do. People get so upset by the idea of the possibility that someone may think that they are racist or biased or bigoted in any way. What's the most important thing? Is it the racism, the bigotry or the bias that's most important, or is it the perception or the feeling that someone may think of you that way? Is it about your fragility, your ego, or is it about the actual thing that is?

And I think if people can really think about that question in an honest way, then they will understand the frustration, and there will be some self-correction because oftentimes, people get indignant about - how dare you say that I am racist? How dare you do that? Why is that so - why does that hurt you or threaten you so much than the actual act of racism?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You end the book by saying, let the last next time be now, referring to the fire of racism. I mean, you did finish the book before the January 6 attack on the Congress and seeing, you know, the Confederate flag in one of the most sacred spaces for democracy. I mean, are we there yet to a place where the last next time is now, or are we further away than perhaps we ever have been?

LEMON: I think we can be closer to it than we believe. It all depends on where we go from here and what we do with this. I am optimistic about our future because I think there are enough like-minded people who are open and who are willing to continue on with this grand experiment of democracy in this country, and that is the quest for a more perfect union - not a perfect union, but a more perfect union. And my evidence of that is the November election of 2020. And although there were a large number of people who voted to keep things status quo and to actually move us back when it comes to racial and social justice and equality in this country, there were more Americans who believed that we needed to move forward and that a change had to be made. And I have to be optimistic. And I have to believe that those people - those like-minded people will win out in the end.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Don Lemon, CNN anchor and author of "This Is The Fire," thank you very much.

LEMON: Lulu, thank you. It's been a real pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.