CNN anchor Don Lemon talks about his candid new memoir, Transparent.
CNN anchor Don Lemon
Tavis: Don Lemon is an award-winning journalist and CNN anchor who’s out with a new book about his personal and professional journey, a journey that began in the small town of Port Allen, Louisiana. The new book is called “Transparent”. Don Lemon, good to have you on this program.
Don Lemon: Oh, it’s great to be here. Thank you so much. I’m honored. Can I say before you talk about my book, genius. I ordered this, seriously, before I saw you on Morning Joe and I ordered it on Amazon and I’ve been traveling and I got here and I said that’s the next thing I’m gonna read and someone gave it to me. This is what I’m reading on a plane when I leave here. It’s genius, “Fail Up”.
Tavis: I’m honored that you have it and I’ve got yours as well, so put mine down. Let’s talk about yours [laugh].
Lemon: Enough love! But it’s a love fest.
Tavis: I appreciate that. The first thing I noticed about you when I first saw you pop up on national television was this news anchor on this very serious network called CNN with this baby face [laugh]. So how often in your career have you been taken seriously as a news anchor?
Lemon: You know, that’s a very important point because I think people think I’m younger than I am, therefore, I’m less experienced and I may have less credibility. I think it’s really, I guess, an embarrassment of riches, so to speak, because it should be a blessing, but I think it hurts me sometimes actually in my career because I look younger.
I have a few gray hairs coming in and I wish more would come in so that some people would take me seriously. But I don’t think it’s a huge issue anymore. I don’t think I look 15. I think I look like I should be there.
Tavis: I mean, long-term, you have what we all want. A baby face goes certainly well when you’re 60 years old and still on CNN [laugh]. That’s gonna serve you well in the long run. But the combination of the baby face which we’re laughing about and being an African American man, how difficult has it been for you to be taken as seriously as you want to be taken?
Lemon: It has been difficult. As I said, I’m kind of embarrassed to talk about it, but it’s true. You know, I will say things in meetings or suggest things or have ideas and people will think that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I look this way and they haven’t looked at the body of my work and my resume to realize that I’ve been doing this for a long time, since 1991, and I have an idea of what the audience needs to hear, wants to hear and should hear and how it should be presented.
I do that on my show, but I think sometimes I’m not taken seriously because of that. And being an African American, you know there is a double standard.
Let’s just be honest about it. You know, people don’t think sometimes that we know what we’re doing, especially Black anchors. They think that we may be affirmative action hire or some anchor robot that just reads the teleprompter. I just did a broadcast where there was no teleprompter for two hours. So, yes, you’re right.
Tavis: I love turning on CNN and seeing you on the weekends in that prime time slot. I would much rather turn on CNN and watch you in prime time on a week night slot. You know, I’m not casting aspersion on CNN. I’m raising this because – you talk about this in the book as well – that so many African Americans, no matter how gifted or talented or skilled they are, end up occupying the weekend spots.
I look at CNN and it’s not just you. Fredricka is on on the weekends. Got some great anchors on CNN, but they seem to put them on the weekend. Again, not a dig at CNN, but why is that Black folk, no matter how talented they are, oftentimes end up anchoring on the weekends?
Lemon: Well, you know, quite honestly what they call it is the weekend ghetto because, if you look at a lot of networks, you see minorities, people of color, on the weekend. You’d have to ask CNN and the other networks that. I can’t answer that question.
I know from living in this skin and from working in this skin as a professional that it is tough to get that brass ring. I think CNN is probably better than most about it because we do have a lot of African Americans, a lot of people of color, on our network. We have an international division that has people from all over the entire world represented.
But I think that is a place where we need to make strides and we need to talk about it and we need to give someone an honest opportunity to do that. That’s not why I’m here. You’re asking me that question. Not saying it’s me, but, yes, you’re right and we should be beyond that.
Tavis: As successful as you have been and are, occupying the prime time slot that you do occupy on the weekends on CNN – what’s –
Lemon: – and we win, by the way. We win all the time. We have great ratings and I have a big fan base on the weekends and the platform is great.
Tavis: You have great ratings, you have great conversations, you conduct great interviews, which is why you’re winning. But all of us have dreams, we all have goals, we have aspirations.
Tavis: For those persons on CNN or other places who happen to be of color and on the weekend, how do you assess your own personal journey? Is the goal to be in prime time weeknights? What’s the goal? Because I assume that none of us wants to stay in the same place forever. Even Oprah gave it up after 25 years [laugh].
Lemon: I would disingenuous. It would be disingenuous of me to say that that is not the goal. Who doesn’t want the brass ring? Ultimately, you have to be happy where you are. I got great advice from a former coworker in Chicago. Her name is Allison Rosati. She said, “You are so talented. You just bloom where you’re planted.”
That’s what I would say to anyone, and especially minorities. Bloom where you’re planted because excellence, greatness, talent will always win out in the end and people will recognize that whether or not you’re in a prime time position no matter where you are. Hopefully, one day there will be someone who can ascend to the brass ring at any network.
Tavis: You referenced my book a moment ago at the top of this conversation. I opened up my book with a quote that’s meant a great deal to me over the years from the great poet and Nobel Laureate, Samuel Beckett, who once said, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.”
That’s always meant so much to me. Try again, fail again, fail better. I raise that because I open up my book with that quote. You open up yours with another. You probably –
Lemon: – I don’t need it.
Tavis: You don’t need it? I’ll ask you to recite it.
Lemon: It’s “The Mustn’ts” by Shel Silverstein. “Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me….Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
Tavis: Why has that been so important to you?
Lemon: Because that’s how I live my life. People have told me no since the very beginning, except for my family and those closest to me and those who support me. I think that you have to believe in yourself no matter what at all costs. Someone asked me on Twitter the other day. You know, it was Ask Don Lemon Day anything you want on Twitter. I was answering the questions.
They said, “What would you change about yourself?” and I said, “Absolutely nothing.” Because who I am, what I am, has made me the person that I am today and I wouldn’t want to change that journey and I don’t want to change who I am.
Tavis: What was it like growing up in Louisiana?
Lemon: It was honestly beautiful. I love Louisiana.
Tavis: You just bought a new house. You bought a piece of land in New Orleans and you’re building a house.
Lemon: Bought a piece of land in the Marigny. I didn’t, you know, just want to have a condo in the French Quarter where you could just drop in. I would love to be a part of the fabric of that city and help that city come back and be the great city that it was when I was a child. I love Louisiana. There’s no place on earth like Louisiana and there’s no city on earth like New Orleans. I grew up in Baton Rouge.
You know, it has a certain vibe, a certain flavor, a certain smell. There’s so much culture packed into that small place, especially in New Orleans. You can’t walk an inch without hearing great music, without seeing great art, without tasting great food. It is concentrated with greatness and with a vibe that is unlike any place on earth.
Tavis: Were you at all surprised – I would assume not, given that you were in this business for as long as you’ve been in it – were you at all surprised, and if not surprised, how have you processed that you could write a book about your life and your work and your career, your aspirations, your frustrations, your fears, your hopes, and there’s always that one or two lines in the book that people seize upon, in your case, the molestation and your being open about your sexual orientation.
What have you made of all of the hype about those revelations as compared to the holistic story that you tell?
Lemon: Well, this journey, especially the last couple of days with the book coming out and the revelations, it’s been overwhelming. I’d have to say it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I had no idea that it would be this big a deal and I had no idea that I would get the overwhelming support that I’ve gotten.
But I’m not naive. I’ve been doing this long enough to realize that those are the things that people are going to pick up on. Ultimately, to be quite honest, those are the things that are probably going to get people to buy the book because they hear it.
Even though you read the book, it’s not a big part of the book. I talk about my life, I talk about working as a broadcaster, my journeys as a journalist. That’s all talked about in the book. But the overall message of those things that I talk about are far more important than people buying the book because of that. I think people need to hear that.
My story is the American story and I think that African Americans especially need to hear that because of the preconceptions that we have about sexuality, about homosexuality, and about molestation. We want to sweep those things under the carpet and we understand. It’s the vestiges of slavery, of discrimination, of Jim Crow and all of those things and we don’t want to, as some people say, air our dirty laundry.
But what I understand through my journey in life and being a Black gay man who has been discriminated against, who’s been molested, that in order to heal, you have to talk about things. You have to bring light to that dark place in order to get through it, just as we have done with discrimination and slavery and segregation.
Tavis: Why did you name the book “Transparent”?
Lemon: Because transparent is my life. We use the word in journalism. We sort of throw it around and we say, you know, let’s be transparent and, you know, let people in on the process and how it happened. You know, what happens in the meeting rooms and when we have our meetings in the conference rooms. How does that process work? How does it get to the public?
In order to be transparent, you really have to be completely honest and open, so that’s how I’ve lived my life and that’s where I am now. I am completely transparent. There’s nothing that you can’t ask me and nothing I won’t talk about.
Tavis: Has the transparency led to, Don, feelings of vulnerability or liberation or both?
Lemon: Both. It’s a tug of war because I feel extremely vulnerable, but at the end of the day, I realize that there is something important about what I’m doing and it’s almost, for me, a divine process. So I had to push myself and get over the vulnerability and live through the fear because that’s how we learn.
When you learn, you grow. You have to stretch and it’s not easy. You know, if you’re working out your muscles, if you’re doing whatever, it’s gonna hurt a little bit. If you’re learning to do math or whatever it is, it makes you think. So I have to push beyond that process, but I do feel empowered now.
Someone asked me, “Well, how do you feel? Are you still nervous? Are you still afraid about telling people that you’re gay?” I said, “I cared yesterday before everybody knew. Now I’m free. No one can hold it against me. I am writing my story. I’m in charge of my own story, so I would say that it is a mix, but I’m glad I’m living that tug of war, that mix.”
Tavis: You suggested a moment ago, Don, how the American people have responded to you overwhelmingly positive with the book, “Transparent”. How are the folk at CNN taking this?
Lemon: They’ve been extremely positive and supremely, I should say, supportive. I do have to – there’s a caveat there that I’m not in the boardrooms, I’m not in the offices, I’m not making those decisions and I would imagine they discuss everything. You know, sexuality, hair color, everything, eye color.
Tavis: Neckties [laugh].
Lemon: Oh, yeah. I get the emails, “Don’t ever wear that tie again.”
Tavis: [Laugh] Don’t wear that color again, yeah.
Lemon: Wear a darker suit or what have you. But they have been on the surface and I believe it to be true. I believe that there is a culture at CNN that is really honest about diversity and acceptance and I think that will win out regardless of if there are people there who may not support me. But I think, if there are any people there who don’t support me, they are in a very small minority.
Tavis: I think he’s the best thing on television on the weekends in this country and I’m honored that he took time to come by to this studio for this conversation. His name, of course, is Don Lemon. You can catch him on CNN. The new book is called “Transparent”. Don, thank you.
Lemon: And this new book is called “Fail Up”. I’m telling you, it’s genius and these lessons are amazing. Thank you so much for having me on and doing what you do.
Tavis: Thank you for coming on.
Lemon: I appreciate it.
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