Release Date

October 6th, 2021

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Don Lemon, CNN anchor and bestselling author of This Is the Fire joins Zainab for an intimate conversation about embracing personal risk, working through heartbreaking loss, and his ongoing experience of reconciling love and pain as a Black man in America.

“You have to be empathetic, you have to be vulnerable, and you have to share yourself, especially if you want to touch people.”

INSPIRATION

TRANSCRIPT

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Redefined is hosted by me, Zainab Salbi, and brought to you by FindCenter, a search engine for your soul. Part library, part temple, FindCenter presents a world of wisdom, organized. Check it out today at www.findcenter.com. And please subscribe to Redefined for free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

What’s most important about life? What is the essence of life? Is it what we do? How much we earn? How many social media followers we have? Or is it do we live our lives in kindness to ourselves and to others? Do we live our lives in love to ourselves and to others? In nearly losing my life, I was confronted with these questions and it led me to the conversations that make up Redefined. About how we draw our inner maps and the pursuit of meaningful personal change.

My guest this week is CNN anchor and bestselling author, Don Lemon. Every night, as I’m sure many of you do, I watch Don present the news on his CNN show as only he can, combining real talk and brilliant analysis with bigheartedness all his own. Our conversation today, though, serves to explore that big heart even more and to go deeper into some of Don’s biggest challenges and what he’s learned by living through this. This is a man who has grieved a sister, embraced his sexuality, and worked tirelessly to understand and communicate what it means to be Black in America. It takes courage to do that. And it takes a lot of risks, to be honest. Something that I really admire about Don and how he has taken it all the way to open his heart to the public wider and wider all the time. Hear more about how Don does it and all about his new must-read book, This Is the Fire.

I loved your book. Loved your book.

Don Lemon:

Oh my gosh. Thank you.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Honestly. I found . . . I’m sure everyone is asking you about all the content about the book. I personally loved the combination between the personal and the political. There are words that came to me. Truth, love, reconciliation. There are words. I was like . . . As I’m hearing, I was like, wow, I love this book. So, the first question I have for you is tell me what made you decide to write it—This Is the Fire.

Don Lemon:

Well, I was . . . We were all last year sitting at home in quarantine. While we were watching these horrible images pour out on our television. Story after story, Zainab, of Ahmaud Arbery being shot . . . Remember the shotgun on the street? In Brunswick, Georgia. And then Breonna Taylor happened. And then George Floyd happened. And then these young people were out there really fighting for us and trying to pull us into . . . not really the future. Well, not the now, but the future. I just thought about the world I was handing off to my great-nephew and then I thought about the most profound thing for me when it came to race that really changed me and touched me was The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I sat down and I said, what if I wrote something like that? Which was a tribute to James Baldwin and where I could dedicate it to my great-nephew. I started by writing a letter to my great-nephew, who was thirteen years old, and the whole book just poured out within a couple months after that. So, that was . . . I felt like I had to do it.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Beautiful. A couple of months. Wow. It takes me much longer to write every book.

Don Lemon:

It takes a long time. So, that was the reason I did it. That was one reason I did it. You sit there every night and you sort of do the . . . I do. I talk about, well, this happened and this happened and this is going on in this country, and I feel like sometimes I’m just doing play-by-play. Almost like a sports announcer. And so I felt like I needed to do something that would last longer. That was more concentrated and that couldn’t be diluted over time. You can pick up this book and you still get the full effect of not only what this moment means, but the moments since James Baldwin wrote his book, the sweep of history over time and racism in this country, and then going into the future. I just wanted something that was beautifully written and that came from my heart.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And it did come from your heart. I actually really very much felt it. It wasn’t only political. I’m curious about the process. Because it was very courageous. Some of the things that you shared in the book on your personal journey. As a journalist, not every journalist wants to share their personal journey. It’s a risk almost to share that aspect, whether it is the story of . . . I mean, we have Baldwin and we have race in America and we have the politics, but you also talk about your molestation and you talk about your trip to Africa with your mother. You talk about all of these aspects of it and that is risky, to show emotions, as a journalist. How did you go about that? Did it feel like a risk for you?

Don Lemon:

It did. Well, any time you’re writing a book, you’re putting yourself out there for criticism from everybody. You’re just kind of opening yourself . . . You’re opening the door and you’re saying, “Come on in. Criticize me.” So, yeah, it did feel that way. I don’t think that you can . . . Something that is this personal and that affects so many people, especially marginalized people and underserved people and people whose stories have not been written throughout history, it’s vulnerability. You have to be vulnerable in order to do it. You have to be empathetic, you have to be vulnerable, and you have to share yourself. Especially if you want to touch people. I think the only way you can touch people is in a personal way. Is through sharing my story and telling about my journey and how I feel. Whether that’s right or wrong or whatever you think it is, it’s my story. This is how I feel.

And so, yeah, it was tough to do, but if you watch me at night, you know I’m very open. I share everything. I think that’s been a part of whatever success that I’ve had. Whatever degree of success that I’ve had. That I’ve just been really open and really vulnerable about it. And it gets tough. I mean, look. It’s tough talking about this all the time, as you know. It can be exhausting and draining. And when you come home . . . When I come home, I just want to . . . I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore because I talked about it for hours at work. But then I had to come home and write the book. It wasn’t easy. So, yeah. You picked up on something that you’d know, I think. You can sense. Yeah. That’s true.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Well, I have. Yes. You go home and home is Sag Harbor, Don. It’s like the epicenter of white privilege. I have lots of friends that I love there, so some of them are common friends. But it’s the epicenter of white privilege, you know? How do you reconcile that? I ask you that from a very personal perspective. The times I’ve been on the show, on your show, I’ve been talking about ISIS and Iraq and the invasion of Iraq and all of that and I got to tell you. It is hard for me to reconcile between the rage and the anger and the pain at seeing my own home country destroyed by America to a great extent . . . not a hundred percent, but to a great extent . . . and between the fact that I live in America and I love this country and I love my friends. That reconciliation between the pain and the anger and between the love and the joy is a constant challenge for me. It’s an everyday challenge. How do you do it? What’s your philosophy about it? How do you handle it?

Don Lemon:

Oh my gosh. The constant challenge. But the interesting thing that I do have to say is that one reason I picked Sag Harbor is because of what it stood for. I write about it in the book. I write about Maude K. Terry and her sister, Amaza Lee Meredith, and what they did and how they carved out this space in this land for Black people to have vacation homes. And so that was one of the reasons I picked Sag Harbor. But yeah. It is. The interesting thing is that when you . . . You said it’s the epicenter of white privilege. I mean, there are a lot of middle-class people there.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s true.

Don Lemon:

But that has nothing to do with privilege. Whether you’re middle class or whatever or upper class or whatever. Money doesn’t shield you from discrimination. Being poor, in a way, does affect that, but most people who are not of color in this country have an ease and have come through a system that is really still built for them, whether they’re poor or not. It’s not really built for Black people. If you look at the true history of the country, it has been to sort of . . . Not sort of, but to hinder Black people’s progress. Slavery. Then, Reconstruction and people realize, oh, you’re starting to have political and financial clout. We got to stop that. Jim Crow. Peonage. Almost having people as indentured servants. The prison exchange program. And then on and on and on. Voter restrictions and on and on and on to today, again with voter restrictions. So, it’s tough. It’s something that I recognize, but I still believe that I have the freedom as an American to be able to live wherever I want.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Well, it’s not that . . . Actually, the question was not about where you live. It’s about how do you reconcile between the love and the pain as you are encountering [it] in your social life and your personal life and your even work life, frankly?

Don Lemon:

How do you reconcile the love and the pain?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Right. I mean, on the one hand, you know there’s . . . I mean, if I use my experience. I am living in a country that helped destroy my country. It’s extremely painful that my own house is erased. All my family are refugees now and this is not by choice.

Don Lemon:

But my whole life has been a . . . My whole life is reconciling that. My whole life has been that way. I think any . . . especially any Black person in this country. That’s your entire life. Of reconciling what America should be and the actual America that you live in. But one still has to live in this country and you still have to live among people and socialize with people. We’re living in a time now, I feel . . . and I’m living in a body and in a space and in a mindset now . . . where I have to hold people accountable regardless of where they live and who they are. And so how I reconcile that is by holding people to account. By using the platform that I have. Not only in my professional life, but in my personal life as well. Because people ask me things about my professional life in my personal life and I have to tell them.

And so I think holding people to account just as you said. By making them aware that the country that you live in has destroyed, in a big way, your home country. That hurts. How do you reconcile that? The country that I live in . . . same thing . . . has done a lot to destroy the people . . . my ancestors. That’s painful, but yet, we still have to live in this country. It’s a weird sort of . . . pull, right? A kind of war that you have. I do talk about that in a sense. About Black people living in the set mode. Like ready, set, go. Like running a race. You’re always on edge. Whether it’s true or not, you’re always wondering. Is this what’s happening to me?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

You also talk about reconciliation in your book. I found it interesting because you talk about the South African experience, but I didn’t hear . . . and maybe I missed it. How do you believe reconciliation can happen in America? Can reconciliation happen in America? I think you believe it can, but what’s the process?

Don Lemon:

That’s tough right now. When I was writing the book, I probably would’ve said we’re in the middle of the process. Or we’re starting . . . not in the middle, but we’re starting the process now. With the election. Would it happen with the election? The insurrection that happened on Capitol Hill showed us that we were in the last vestiges or the last throes of racism. And I still do believe that. Of white supremacy, I should say. Not racism. White supremacy in this country. But, now, looking at what’s happening with voter restrictions, that process is going to be even harder. The process of reconciliation is going to be even harder because you have people who are trying to take away one of the fundamental rights that we have in this country . . . and I believe the biggest fundamental right . . . and that’s the right to vote and to be able to choose who we have as leaders and the direction of the country and, really, taking away agency.

And so . . . Look, I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not a politician. Maybe I should be. But I think that, now, the only party that can help to save our democracy is the Democratic Party. And I’m not a political person. Because the Republicans now are operating in place of non-truth, of trying to limit people’s ability to have rights, and really just lying and gaslighting. They just want to win at every turn. And so I don’t know what’s going to help. I think Democrats need to have a backbone and stand up and fight for the democracy. Otherwise, we’re in deep doo-doo.

But I think it’s really going to come . . . If it’s going to come, it’s from all of these people who want . . . who are right-minded . . . and I don’t mean right- or left-leaning, but have the right mindset to get together and realize their power. The underserved people of all different ethnicities. Black people, poor Whites, Latinos, women. All of these people in our society who have been underserved and unrepresented pretty much by the government have to get together and stand up and fight for this country. And not allow politicians to co-opt and to exploit . . . To exploit us. Then, we’ll be able to start the process of reconciliation. No matter what the politicians try to do. No matter what the larger culture tries to do, as of now, to hang onto the power as the demographics start to dwindle and we become a minority majority country.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Brilliant. So, first, reconciliation as I’m hearing from you starts with actually righting the wrong.

Don Lemon:

Yes.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And then only then can then we talk about, okay, how do we reconcile for the future?

Don Lemon:

Yeah, but righting that wrong, I said, is going to be tough because restricting people’s ability to be able to choose their own leaders is not righting a wrong. It’s actually regression.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

But we are in the fight of righting the wrong right now. In the middle of it.

Don Lemon:

Yes, we are.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Talking about righting the wrong, I happened to live in Edward R. Murrow’s house, actually. It’s a log cabin, upstate New York, and it happens . . . A combination of happenstance and intentionality on the behalf of the sellers. And so I sat reading Edward R. Murrow’s book, and—

Don Lemon:

I wish I could smoke a cigarette like that at night, even though I’m a non-smoker. Just sit there at night and talk to people with my cigarette.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Exactly. Well, these days, we can smoke other things as well and it’s a log cabin. So, I sat reading his book. His autobiography. I was like . . . honestly . . . was like, wow, he wrote this speech. He delivered this speech. I don’t know if you remember the speech he gave in 1959 to the Association of Radio and TV . . . Radio and Television News Director Association. 1958. I want to read you a paragraph of it and see what you think about it. He is talking about the media. He says, “Sometimes there’s a clash between the public interests and the corporate interests. Upon occasions, economic and editorial judgment are in conflict.”

He goes on and says . . . I mean, he says a lot of interesting things, but this is one of the interesting paragraphs I find. He says, “It may be that the present system can survive. Perhaps the money-making machine has some kind of built-in perpetual motion, but I do not think so. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. Our mass media reflects that. But unless we get off of our fat surpluses and recognize that television is being used to distract, dilute, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it may see a totally different picture too late. I began by saying that our history will be what we make of it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge and retributions will not limp in catching up with us.”

Do you think he was prescient in his assessment of the future of journalism as we are just surviving an era where journalists were called the enemy of the state? We’re talking about Republicans, but we have a lot of journalism in this country that is not about the truth and it’s about commercial interests. What do you think about some of his speeches? I mean, what I read?

Don Lemon:

I think he was brilliant. Listen, I mean, obviously, he . . . Yes, he was prescient. He was living in a different time. I just wonder what he would’ve thought of social media. Maybe it’s that the saying . . . What he’s saying there basically is one day the chickens are going to come home to roost. And I think they are. Because we haven’t used . . . He mentioned in that specifically television. He said those who fund television. Listen, I don’t think . . . Obviously, the last administration used the power of the pulpit to attack the institution of journalism. I think, in more ways than one, it was usually someone on television. Because the last administration was obsessed with cable television. Although he did attack The Washington Post and the New York Times and he called us Fake News Media.

But I do think Edward R. Murrow is right in that . . . which is the reason why I conduct myself, Zainab, the way that I do every single night on television and whenever I have the opportunity to speak to people through this medium or the medium of journalism. The reason that I speak with such honesty and bluntness and frankness is because there is a lack of it in so many places. I’m not talking about the folks who are doing good. Legacy media and people who have standards and practices and rules and believe in facts. But there are members . . . There are organizations that call themselves news organizations that don’t deserve that title, news. It should be “entertainment program.” Quite frankly, it should be Fox Entertainment Program or Fox Entertainment Channel instead of the Fox News Channel. Because they don’t have to operate in facts. A lot of it is fiction and it’s made to entertain an audience and to reaffirm beliefs. Already long-held beliefs. A lot of those beliefs center around white supremacy and a structure for the country that has been put into place that they think should continue to stay that way.

So, do I think that Edward R. Murrow was right? Absolutely. Do I think that we’re paying the price for things that those who came before us did? Yes. Do I think that the people who, as he said, have funded television and have used it . . . especially the news portion of television . . . and have used it for profit . . . Are they to blame? Yes. But I do think that that goes beyond the journalists on television. That’s above our pay grade. We don’t decide those things. We only operate within that ecosystem. So, yeah. I do think that we need to change and maybe if journalism wasn’t for profit . . . part of the for profit wing of an organization . . . that perhaps there would be more rules and there wouldn’t be such competition for money above everything, politics would not have such a stronghold in this medium, and that it can be covered and dealt with fairly. So, in a sense, I will agree with what he says, but I do think that Edward R. Murrow, as great and as beloved as he is and was, was operating in a time that was quite different than we’re operating in right now.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s true. I actually have to read you . . . because you talk about the nonprofit. He said, “There is no suggestion here that networks or individual stations should be operated as philanthropies, but I can find nothing in the Bill of Rights or in the Communication Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year, less the Republic collapse.” So, it is about . . . It’s in the nuances. But, I mean, I guess the question is what needs to be redefined in the media sector? One of the things I hear from you is call it entertainment. Like call Fox entertainment.

Don Lemon:

You should call entertainment, entertainment. Listen, every night, when I give at the beginning of my show what I call my take, it is called Don’s Take. I also say, “In my estimation.” I try not to give my opinion because I don’t do opinion journalism. I give my point of view as an American. As an American who happens to be Black, who happens to be gay, who lives in this society and in this country and in this world now. I’m giving my point of view, but everything I say is based in fact. And it must be based in fact. I think that people can do that . . . You can give an analysis of something without lying about it or trying to co-opt or corrupt people.

I do think that many of the organizations who call . . . or a number of the organizations who call themselves news organizations, they don’t do that. They just can make up things and lead their audience astray and then what happens? You get an insurrection on Capitol Hill. From people who don’t have the correct information. From people who are believing in lies because you have told them those lies. And then they end up being prosecuted. But I think with people who are operating on facts, on the correct . . . especially the correct history in this country. If the entire history of this country was told and those who contributed, I think you would have less of a possibility of people who are ending up trying to overthrow the government on the day that an election is supposed to be certified and then continuing to believe in the lies of a leader who finds it impossible to tell the truth.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Yeah. Thank you. So, I want to switch to the personal because this podcast is called Redefined. Don, I don’t know if you know, but I actually disappeared out of the world because I found myself in the ICU, struggling between life and death and thinking that I’m taking my last breath, a couple of years ago. It took me a year to slowly, step by step, breath by breath, to come . . . I don’t call it come back to life. I call it arrive back to my heart, actually. Arrive to. Not back. I arrived. But in the process, I learned that, wow, all the things that I have defined about my life were actually irrelevant as I am in that moment between life and death, which is not a moment. It became a year. I started deciding I need to understand what is the most important things about life and how have turning moments in people’s lives taught them about the most important things about life. I want to ask you a question about your sister’s death. Because when you narrated it, you . . . Oh my god. Let me say. I’m going to cry now. It took me back to my own loss of my own mother. I really appreciate how you put your heart in it in a very beautiful way. What has that death taught you?

Don Lemon:

Oof.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Oof indeed.

Don Lemon:

That part of the book was the hardest to read. It took me forever. I couldn’t get the words out. When I finally would and I could get enough breath in my lungs to be able to read it, I couldn’t see it because I was crying. What did that loss mean to me? Is that the—

Zainab Salbi (Host):

No. What has it taught you about life? About the most important things about life.

Don Lemon:

Well, the interesting is . . . You can hear it from your mom or from your mentors. It’s, like, brush things off. Don’t worry about people. Don’t let other people influence you. Don’t worry about what people think about you or what people say about you. Don’t hold onto things. If people want to walk out of your life, let them walk out. If someone criticizes you, it’s not necessarily about you. It can be about them and don’t let that penetrate. What my sister’s death gave me was . . . I shouldn’t say a devil-may-care attitude, but I really don’t give a you-know-what about what you think about me. It gave me an urgency about life and leading my life, leaning into my life, those who I love, and where I want my life to go. Whichever waters I would choose. I may choose . . . You know what? Today, I’m going to go away from the river and I’m going to the ocean because that’s where I think the path is for me.

So, it gave me that. I have a sense of urgency about what I’m going to do with my platform every single day and every single night. There was something in the news now where someone on another channel is spewing all this stuff about me and people were saying, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” Because it just doesn’t penetrate me. I just don’t . . . I don’t really care. And so, as I say in the book . . . What did I say? I forget how I write it, but if it’s that my opinion or something that I say could piss you off, then that brings me joy, or whatever. I forget how I write it in the book. I’d have to go back to the line. But if you care enough about what I say that I can affect you and piss you off and you can criticize me, okay, fine. That’s your business. It doesn’t mean that I have to respond to it. It doesn’t mean that it has to affect me at all.

I’ve gone through the death of my sister. I mean, just the sudden death of my sister. I’ve lost my father. I lost my stepdad. I lost my grandmother. I don’t know how long I’m going to be on this earth, so every single moment that I have, I’m going to use it the way that I want to use it. And so you do the same thing. If you want to use that moment by criticizing me or saying something bad about me, then have fun. But it doesn’t mean that I have to allow it to affect me. I am a completely emancipated person. I live the way I want to live and I live with joy. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have my struggles and concerns and worries, or whatever, but I love being Don Lemon and I’m going to continue to do that regardless of what profession I’m in.

One thing I am going to do is use the voice that I have to speak for people who cannot speak. Who didn’t have the privilege to be able to hold our government and officials accountable during a 100-year pandemic. Something that happens . . . only can happen in a hundred years. A deadly pandemic where hundreds of thousands of people died. As tough as it was for me . . . I know it was tougher for other people, but every night, I could get there and say, “You screwed up. Where are the answers? How are you going to help people?” And that’s quite a blessing to be able to have. I’m going to continue to do that for as long as I can. I don’t care what you say. You can say, “Stop talking about January 6th.” I’m not. This doesn’t affect me. I’m going to continue to do it. “Stop talking about race. You’re a race baiter.” I’m not a race baiter, but I’m going to talk about what’s important. This is important for us. “Stop talking about women” and “Women have every” . . . I’m going to continue to fight for women and for gay people, LGBTQ community, and for Black people, and for Latino people, and for Asian people, and for Muslims, and for Native Americans. Because I am. I’m sorry. Sorry not sorry. That’s it.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I love it. I love it! I love it. I love it. You know, this reminds me. I had a teacher once told me . . . She said, “Live every single day as if it’s your last day,” which means live it fully. She said, “Because the day you die, you don’t want to say, ‘Oh, God, please give me another month or another year to do this.’ Live it every day. Give it your all.”

Don Lemon:

Urgency.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

It seems that you’re giving every day your all. All of Don.

Don Lemon:

I give every day my all, but guess what I’ve learned to do? Well, I shouldn’t say learned because I’ve always known this. Like, today is a rainy, cloudy day in New York City. If I want to sit in bed, I’m going to stay in bed. You say, “Oh, you’re missing the day.” No, I’m not. I’m enjoying being here. I’m watching old Law and Order episodes because it’s just . . . It’s bliss for me. I don’t have to think about anything. I just want to be here. Do you know what I’m saying?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I completely know. I have a new word for it. Instead of FOMO, it’s JOMO. The joy of missing out.

Don Lemon:

I love that! Can I steal that? Can I use that?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Please do! It’s yours. If you want to lay in bed and watch Law and Order, which is my favorite, actually, it’s JOMO. Hey. Don, as I was reading, again, your book, the word that comes to me as I think of you is courage. The courage to speak. I want to take you back to your memoir, Transparent. Because I think . . . I don’t know if that was your most courageous and then since then you’ve taken the flag of courage and moved it forward to speak on behalf of everyone and for everyone, but I want to ask you a question about that. Because it’s one thing to come out to the world and speak about the larger political issue. I’m speaking about my experience. It’s quite another to speak about our own personal stories. Especially if it’s you grew up with . . . For me. When I spoke about my story, I had to handle my shame and my worry about my family and my community. Oh my god, what’s going to happen to me? I wasn’t thinking about the media and what they’re going to say. As my father says, do whatever you want to say outside Iraq, but please don’t say anything in here. How did you decide and what’s the process . . . not how. What’s the process that made you decide that I need to come out and how has your family and community helped you in that process?

Don Lemon:

Oof. That was . . . It’s like jumping in the water and knowing that you’re going to go under for a while and then you’ll pop back up like a buoy, hopefully. This was actually a decade ago. This was ten years ago when I was writing Transparent. I was writing . . . Transparent was sort of a memoir. My journeys in journalism. This is where I am as a journalist. This is who I am. It was sort of an introduction to the audience beyond CNN. I was writing about my life and my career and my journeys in journalism and just about me personally and I got to this point in the book where I said, “And then I moved to New York City.” And I was like, well, I need to tell people why I moved to New York City. If I leave that part out, then I’m not being honest. I’m not being candid.

It was a lie by omission. I wasn’t going to lie to people by omission because I wanted to hold people to the same set of rules and to account the way that . . . I wanted to hold myself to account and by the same rules that I hold other people, especially the people I interviewed on television. And so I just said, I’ve got to say it and whatever happens, happens. Because if I don’t, then I’ve missed an opportunity to be able to help people and I’m just not being honest as a journalist and I’m not being honest as a person. And so I wrote it and I put it in there and I said, I could put it in there, but then I don’t . . . I can always take it out. They were like, “You can always take it out.” I said, “Okay, okay, okay.” I put it in there and they called me and they said, “All right. We’re going to go publish. Do you want to leave this?” And I said, “Yeah. Leave it.” And that was it.

I thought, after this book, that I wouldn’t have a career. That people wouldn’t watch me. That my family and people would laugh and say I told you he was a F word or he was gay or a homo or a sissy or punk and all that stuff. I said, you know what? Whatever. It turned out, I think, to be the right thing. You know, Zainab, there were people who told me . . . even representatives . . . who said, “Do you want to always be known as the gay anchor?” Back then, I was like, “No, I don’t, actually.” And then, now, I’m like, “Pfft, yeah! Of course, I do!” It’s a whole shame and internalized homophobia that you have in you because that’s the way it is. It was ingrained. You thought it was bad. And, now, I don’t think being gay is bad. If someone calls me the gay anchor, I’ll be like, “Oh, hey. You’re [inaudible 00:34:38].” It’s not a bad thing. But back then, we thought it was.

So, it was . . . Yes, it was really tough. I already had . . . The reason that I think my mom and my family members may have had some hesitancy about it is because they felt that I had already had one mark against me. I’m already Black in this society. Why do you want to add something else? The whole thing. Do people have to know who you sleep with and what you do in the bedroom? And I’m like, well, I’m not telling people what I do in the bedroom or exactly who I’m sleeping with. I’m just telling them who I am. I want to be able to share a story about someone I’m seeing or my dating life just as you do every single day. Or your married life or your children or whatever. Just as you do every single day. What you did on vacation or the fishing trip you went on with your family. I want to be able to have that same right and ease as an American. And joy as an American to be able to do that. As a human being. And so I left it in there and there it is. I hope I did . . . Did I do okay? Was it the right decision?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Oh my gosh. You make me think of Freedom Is an Inside Job. You got your freedom. What I learned when I told my truth and the utter truth to the world, which is similar to your process, is my fear . . . I was the fear itself. I was the fear and the prison guard for it. I was keeping my fear fed every single day. When I broke it, I was like, wow!

Don Lemon:

You bring other people along with you. You educate everyone around you. I think that’s something to evolve. You don’t realize the gravitational pull that you have. And I don’t mean down. You help to elevate people, I should say.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Exactly. Ever since I broke my fear and spoke the truth, truth became . . . Speaking the truth, telling the truth, living the truth became my motto in life because it’s so much . . . First of all, it’s delicious to start with. It’s so liberating. Don, I have a few last questions. Rapid questions in here. Is there a song that makes you feel empowered and brave that you always go to?

Don Lemon:

I mean, the thing that comes to mind probably is a Marvin Gaye song, “What’s Going On.” That always makes me feel empowered. Because I think of him. I just did a documentary on him. I’ve always loved the album, the entire album, What’s Going On, but I love the song too because it’s the genius of asking people a question and challenging them to answer it.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s beautiful. Is there a prayer, a poem, a piece of art that lifts your spirit?

Don Lemon:

Well, Psalms 91 is something that lifts my spirit. And there’s a poem that’s by Shel Silverstein. “Listen to the Mustn’ts child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the wouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves and listen close to me. Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” That uplifts my spirit.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s beautiful. Beautiful. How about movies? That you go to for either a good cry or renew your . . . I have movies that renew my belief in the triumph of good over evil. Do you have any—

Don Lemon:

You’re talking to someone who cries at commercials. I love old movies. I loved movies like . . . and I know this. People are going to . . . People criticize now because we’re living in this sort of woke space. I cry on movies . . . Like To Kill a Mockingbird makes me cry. The one that makes me want to be a better writer is All About Eve. Because it’s so beautifully written. And I love . . . Imitation of Life is one of my favorite movies. But the one that makes me cry that I have to watch every year is It’s a Wonderful Life. I cry like a baby every single year at It’s a Wonderful Life. And what else? Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Sidney Poitier is a really good one because it teaches people about falling in love with someone who doesn’t look like them and comes from a completely different world. So, yeah. But I love old movies. I’m an old movies person.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

You share that in your book, actually. I remember that. Yes. Yeah, I’ll check these movies out. Some of them I don’t, some of them I do. Are there mentors or teachers . . . beside your mother, who I know you’re very close to. What teachers or mentors that have inspired you?

Don Lemon:

It’s weird because he was a mentor in my head before I even met him and it’s T. D. Jakes. People think that it’s a kind of odd relationship that we have, but we do. If I ever need something really . . . I listen to him every day. His sermons. But if I really need to call him, I can pick up a cell phone and call him. I have other people like that who are like family members. We fight and we love each other and we get along. Tyler Perry is one. If I need to talk to someone about something that really means something, I can call him and say, “Hey, look, I need to talk to you about something,” and he will give it to me straight.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s beautiful. And last one. Is there a book? Your favorite book you go for solace or strength.

Don Lemon:

Right here. James Baldwin.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Love it.

Don Lemon:

The Fire Next Time. This is one of my oldest copies right here.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Love it. Love it.

Don Lemon:

I love that.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I love that. I love your book, This Is the Fire. Can we see it? Do you have it around you?

Don Lemon:

I do. I have The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and then I have This Is the Fire by Don Lemon.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Well, James would be proud of you. We all are.

Don Lemon:

Thank you.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Thank you so much, Don. I’m really honored and privileged to have this conversation with you.

Don Lemon:

It’s so good to see you and I hope to see you in person, okay?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I look forward to it. Thank you.

Don Lemon:

You be well. Thank you so much.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Thank you. You, too. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Don Lemon:

Bye bye.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Bye.

And that was Don Lemon. His new book is This Is the Fire. You can follow Don on Instagram @donlemoncnn. You can follow me @zainabsalbi. And follow FindCenter @find_center. For transcripts and other resources from this episode, please go to www.findcenter.com/redefined. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll be back next week for another conversation about life’s turning points and lessons learned. My guest will be author and Buddhist ritual leader, Reverend angel Kyodo williams. Redefined is produced by me, Zainab Salbi, along with Rob Corso, Casey Kahn, and Howie Khan at FreeTime Media. Our music is by John Palmer. Special thanks to Neal Goldman, Jenn Tardif, Elijah Townsend, Amanda Graber, Jesse Stormo, and Don Lemon’s team at Little Brown and CNN.