In his new book, “This Is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism,” Lemon writes: “I hadn’t intended to share that. I believe a journalist should bring the empathy and understanding they gain from life experiences without injecting their personal narrative into the story of the moment. But at this particular moment, I was trying to build whatever bridge I could.” An entire book could be written about that two-and-a-half minute exchange, exploring what it means for Black people to express their grief and strive for systemic justice. But Lemon is focused more on bridge-building. In the book, Lemon seeks not only to pull back the curtain on these private moments in the his life but also connect them to America’s long-standing history of racism. He illuminates where American racism comes from, what it looks like and where it goes from here. Written in the past year during the pandemic, the unwinding of the Trump presidency and the rise of racial unrest, Lemon offers an optimistic view, writing that we may be seeing “the death throes of White supremacy in concert with the birth pangs of racial renaissance.” But, he insists, real change won’t come by watching and waiting for white supremacy to end. “This time feels different,” he writes, “but it won’t be different unless we make it different with commitment, forbearance, and hard work.”
In a chapter called “About the Benjamins,” Lemon addresses the economic side of racism and how to combat it. He notes the power of the consumer to bring political progress. Changing demographics point to an ever larger role for people of color in the economy, and that new power must be leveraged, Lemon suggests. “If we hope to make a tectonic shift in how this country functions on a daily household level,” he writes, “we have to take this fight back to where it began: money.” He sees hope in people of color exerting their influence in politics through the marketplace. “We need to grow an economic conscience,” Lemon explains, “and iron-plate our values with the willful spending — or withholding — of cold, hard cash.” He adds that we need “single-minded consumers who think — no, really think — before they feed another dollar into the bloated belly of a White supremacist economy.”
Lemon notes that corporations have promoted progress and points to a commercial Cheerios released in 2013 featuring an interracial couple. The controversial ad provoked a flurry of racial slurs. That ad, and other efforts, have helped to widen the field for non-White visibility. “In 2020, I defy you to watch network TV for half an hour without seeing some representation of interracial and/or nonbinary couples,” he writes. “These days, we’re frankly surprised if we don’t see it.”
But Lemon resists siding with those who see a need to drastically rethink how police operate in light of recent killings of unarmed Black men and women. He notes the “battle cry” of “Defund the police!” but adds “frankly, it made me cringe.” He believes the urgency of that catchphrase fails to recognize the process of change — which is sometimes slow. “Look, I get it. I’m all about reinventing the way police are present in the lives and neighborhoods of Black people, but in my opinion, ‘defund the police’ is not a productive thing to say,” he writes. “It promotes a startled knee-jerk response, potentially alienating people who might have been allies, and it implies an unrealistic snap-of-the- fingers simplicity for those who are willing to fight for change but can’t stomach the long haul.”
Lemon opens the book with a letter to his nephew lamenting the way the world is and the need to fight complacency in the battle against racism. It’s an intimate, tender approach that been used with more poignancy by Black intellectuals such as Martin Luther King Jr., Ta-Nehisi Coates, Imani Perry and Kiese Laymon. These writers speak specifically to Black people and deliver a mixture of honesty, tenderness and exasperation about the Black experience. They have discarded the goal of laying out an objective argument — they have no concern about the White gaze, and its acceptance, rejection or harm. By tossing away those considerations, they unearth something more honest, more pertinent, more timeless as they talked directly to the Black community.
Both the title “This Is the Fire” and Lemon’s letter seek to evoke James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” and his “Letter to My Nephew,” in which Baldwin addresses the travesty and frailty of navigating White America. Baldwin has become the iconic shorthand and barometer for Black ethos, his work and identity forming a fundamental part of our culture. Lemon’s attempt to associate his work with the brilliance of Baldwin can only come up short. “This Is the Fire” is not up to the task of extending Baldwin’s legacy or vision.
Ultimately, Lemon leaves me wondering who he’s speaking to — who his friends are in his subtitle. They seem to be mainly White people. That’s not shade, but it was something that sat with me as I read “This Is the Fire.” I wish Lemon had made friends with Stevante Clark, or someone like him, someone whose plight, closeness and lack of bull might’ve aided this book’s emotional tone. The deeper I got into it, the more I looked for Lemon, Clark and even myself in those pages. All of us — the Anchor, the Mourner, the Reviewer — are asked to play flat roles in a discussion that doesn’t fully get at what’s going on in America. “This Is The Fire” does all the right things: it taps into history, the present, the anger, the hope, the energy, the sickness, the people, the places, the familiar and the unfamiliar. But it leaves me wanting more.
With less than 200 pages of text, the book reads a bit like mainstream TV coverage: there’s patter about Trump, the pandemic and contemporary events, and we hear from some Black voices with rudimentary briskness. Some chapters feel like they’re headed right into a commercial break. Lemon, who clearly loves history, pop culture and politics, needs more space to delve into his subjects. Time is urgent, but our culture isn’t a news cycle.
For that reason, while “This Is the Fire” was written in the now, it still somehow lacks the perspective and urgency of other books on race, the sanctity of Black lives and the heel that White America seeks to keep us under. “This Is the Fire” might have felt richer, newer, more of a risk-taking effort had it addressed Lemon’s nephew throughout rather than changing course to speak to his friends. Lemon goes to great pains to make the case for Black justice, racial progress and a reexamination of where we’ve been and are going, but I couldn’t help thinking that if it takes almost 200 pages to convince my friends of this, I need new friends.
In his brief interview with Lemon, Clark could be seen to be offering some advice to Lemon the author as much as Lemon the anchor. Clark captured me when he cried out on air: “Don Lemon! Let me talk to my people, okay? You Black. I’m Black. Let’s be Black now.”
This Is the Fire
What I Say to My Friends About Racism
Little, Brown. 211 pp. $28