This is the Fire

The soul of America has been engulfed in flames the last four years with the election of the former President, Donald Trump. In truth, doused in good-old American racism, its embers, ignited by hate and fear, have long been smoldering, belching the occasional noxious gas to remind us of their odiousness and staying power. Replete with a steady flow of nauseating accelerants, the flame of hate just won’t seem to die out.

In “This is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism,” Don Lemon, the cable news anchor, talks candidly about America’s history with race at a time that is both a conflagration and a watershed moment. Steeped in studied history and moored in personal reflection, the book excels in explaining how amazingly perverse racism is and how we got to where we are as a country, made worse by the strains of the ongoing pandemic. Inspired by famed Black American author James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” which delved into the same topic in the 1960s, Lemon’s rendition is the lick that Baldwin’s warned us about decades prior. Referencing a verse in a pre-Civil War-era negro spiritual, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water the fire next time,” Baldwin’s warning is taken up by Lemon with heart and measured optimism – but Lemon does not speak of rainbows.

Both books start with a stirring note addressed to the author’s nephew and grandnephew: Baldwin to his namesake, James, and Lemon to Trushaad, the grandson of his deceased sister Leisa. The tenderness in each letter, intended to prepare two, young, Black boys for an America that sees them a threat when outside of their cloistered existence, is like the lulling preamble to a rancorous alarm clock that is about to go apeshit. You are subconsciously reminded that both men were once shielded by the same guilelessness, as if they were writing the letter to their younger selves, or even to each other generations apart, or to any Black boy who will confront this ogre later in life.

As a CNN anchor and journalist, Lemon is a critical part of the discussion and presentation of racial issues in America. He’s interviewed the varying parties and factions whom it impacts, including victims, disparaged family members, experts and political and governmental leadership. But he’s also a Black man in America who, like us, witnessed the series of events that incited the civil unrest the past summer with the killing of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, the altercation in the Ramble in New York’s Central Park between the white dog walker, Amy Cooper, and the Black bird watcher, Chris Cooper, as well as the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis—all serving as the impetus for the timely book. In other words, Lemon could imagine himself under the weight of officer Derek Chauvin’s knee, as Chauvin snuffed out Floyd’s life.

Lemon writes, “Americans are a deeply divided people, isolated in conflicting bubbles of information and disinformation” fomented by a history of slavery, racist white supremacy, a silent white majority that props the whole thing up, and more recently, Donald Trump, who “forced us into the fire. And then he poured gasoline on it.” This “uncivil war,” as Lemon calls it is “no longer a war between North and South, and it never was a war between Black and White; it is an ideological conflict between those who cling to a barbaric ethnic caste system and those who are determined to progress beyond it.”

Lemon does a great job of contextualizing his own history and experience in the greater American story, as a descendant of both the enslaved and the slave owner, which he confirmed by way of ancestral DNA and a journey with his mother to trace their African roots in an exercise initiated by CNN, antecedent to this book. Born into relative middle-class privilege as the son of a Baton Rouge attorney, he writes of the experience of growing up Black in a country that has exacted both a brown paper bag test and “Black boxing” to define and confine the expectations of Black Americans like him. Lemon shared one personal example in an interaction while a journalism student at LSU with one of his professors, who said, “I don’t know why you’re here. You’re not going to make it in this business.”

With careful research, Lemon threads the nuanced story of the first Portuguese ships that showed up in Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619 to where we are now with George Floyd’s face pressed into the dusty Minneapolis asphalt with a no-holds-barred approach in describing the cruelty, identifying the perpetrators, or the reason behind it all:

“They’d managed to keep a tight lid on this “undesirable” minority, ensuring their poverty, preventing them from voting, feeding them into the prison labor force, and even openly murdering them — hanging them from trees on blatant display — without upsetting the complacency of the docile White Christian majority.”

He draws a line from Emmet Till to Floyd, mentioning the late senator John Lewis and Colin Kaepernick in between, who play important roles in this grand American story of becoming a more “perfect union.” He excoriates those who still doubt Black people’s accounts of white hostility, especially among official ranks, which Floyd’s public death made irrefutable. Lemon also assails those who still question why Black Americans can’t seem to pull themselves up by the bootstraps despite centuries of harm and disenfranchisement that still persists even to this day, all while those very same doubters silence talk of reparations for the unpaid Black industry that has led to America’s prominence.

Lemon is, in some ways, an unlikely person to pen this tale. He is a media personality some Black Americans have perceived as conservative-leaning, self-righteous, and with a similar air of Black exceptionalism as the now-disgraced comedian Bill Cosby. But this is not the Don Lemon you will come to know. Despite his admission of being a Young Republican in his college years and references that suggest prior self-consciousness about his hair texture and facial features, Lemon is proudly Black, proudly pro-Black and socially liberal. Whether he has been mischaracterized or not, there appears to be some personal awakening for him, too, here, forcing him, as he described in his letter to his grandnephew, Tru, “I will not stand among the silent. Silence is no longer an option.” Ultimately, Lemon does not obscure his activism.

As well, Lemon, like Baldwin, is a gay Black man, who is engaged to a white man. Yet, these are the very reasons why he is astute to tell this story, because his very existence is a stand in for America’s contemptible race problem, one that can and should hold true the possibility of youthful, internalized self-hatred borne from racism, a love for one’s own race, reproach for racists and racism, while being in love with someone the same race as your oppressor—never mind the added complexities of sexual orientation.

Also, much like Baldwin, who waded in the subject matter from a literary vantage point, and as one of the more prominent journalists who report daily on every thorny societal issue in America, Lemon is a more than adequate fire warden, equipped to educate, raise awareness, show leadership in escaping the blaze and, through journalistic objectivity, tasked with leaving no one behind.

The writing in this book shows mastery in storytelling, is very well researched in its historical references and is interspersed with writerly deftness displayed in sentences like:

“Change happens. A wilderness can be citified or a city xeriscaped, and as surely as outlaws become in-laws, the fundamental structure of a society can be reshaped. New ideas take root. Culture evolves.”

Through the above and other notable instances, Lemon doesn’t just examine the problem, but suggests a path forward — although, without providing concrete examples — the root that must anchor itself in the minds of “people of color” and “people of conscience.” For Black lives to truly matter, he says, “we won’t have to hold up Black deaths to prove it.” For anyone wondering how this dreadful saga ends, he offers, “People, there is no end. The answer is a new beginning, and that can be forged only in the crucible of compassionately radical change.” There is no longer space and time for “what-aboutism.” Quoting Baldwin’s final words in “The Fire Next Time,” Lemon writes, the “relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others,” suggesting there are no two ways about this. It requires a majority consensus. In spite of this charge, Lemon holds some skepticism whether the eruption of outrage and protest in the death of George Floyd was really the beginning of a sea change. He also cautions, saying of Baldwin, “I think he knew there would be a next time, and a next-next time, and a time after that, because the next times will never end until Black people reject their complacency and White people reject their privilege.”

Where Lemon arrives as a conclusion is that maybe when Americans, Black and white, though he doesn’t really acknowledge the many other Americans of other racial groups in the book, can acknowledge its rotten history and show determination to extinguish the inferno with the meaningful discussion, accountability and measures it takes to rectify it, perhaps, then, the fire will go out, at last.

About this book

  • ISBN:9780316257572
  • Price:$28.00
  • Page Count:224

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