‘This Is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism,’ by Don Lemon: An Excerpt

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Do I But Dream

A comfortable two-hour drive from the Midtown headquarters of CNN, not far from the Sag Harbor home I share with my fiancé, Tim, a truncated boardwalk path cuts through the dune grass and gives way to tawny sand on the beach at Sag Harbor Bay. A stone marker at the trailhead honors the founder of this extraordinary enclave, an African American neighborhood on prime beachfront real estate.

“In grateful recognition of Maude K. Terry,” it says. “Do I but dream.”

Docile green waves lap at the shore where Indigenous people, the Shinnecock, withstood bleak pre-Columbian winters and bloody raids by the neighboring Pequot until Europeans arrived on the continent in the 1500s, bringing Bibles and smallpox. The Shinnecock had no immunity to the virus, of course, and little energy left over to resist the Holy Spirit. Two-thirds of their population was wiped out within a few years. Able-bodied survivors went to work on Melvillesque whaling vessels, some of which were outfitted for the clandestine purpose of “blackbirding”: the acquisition, by coercion or outright kidnapping, of Indigenous people from faraway islands and coastal regions to labor on cotton and sugar plantations in Europe and the Colonies.

In July 1619, legislative representatives from eleven large New World settlements met in Jamestown, Virginia, to establish the standards and practices that would lay a foundation for the democracy they aspired to build. One month later, at nearby Point Comfort, about two dozen Angolan men and women were offloaded and sold by Portuguese slave traders. Thus the dream of democracy and the nightmare of slavery were born in the same urgent breath, and there was never a time when White people, as a monolith, were comfortable with it. There were always agitators and conscientious objectors; they just couldn’t summon the traction needed to overcome the landed gentry and wealthy industrialists who depended on free labor for their beefy bottom line.

[ Return to review of “This Is the Fire.” ]

Fast-forward a century and a half. An early draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors” — a “cruel war against human nature itself” — but 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson and his young allies were shouted down by older, more pragmatic voices who agreed in theory with all that “inalienable rights” jazz but argued that their cotton wasn’t going to pick itself. If there was any discussion of extending these rights to women of any color, it has vanished from history. The document was revised to a “sorry, not sorry” declaration of the independence of White men.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .

They said this without a wink. Utterly sincere. Perhaps the only way to reconcile their lofty ideals and barbaric actions was to compartmentalize; slaves and savages could not be considered “men” in the strictest image-of-God sense. If the framers had seen these wretches as men, they would have been forced to see themselves as barbarians.

But when young Jefferson went on to write the Preamble to the Constitution, he left a ticking time bomb: a single adverb that should unsettle every generation and inspire every striver, and on this they all agreed. Our brilliant founders set, for themselves and posterity, the task of forming “a more perfect union.” Not perfect. More perfect. The quest for perfect is a doomed endeavor — a plastic cover on the sofa, artificial gardenias in a graveyard. Down that path lies despair, fatigue, familiar refrains about “just the way it is,” and a thousand other excuses to give up.

The quest for more perfect is work ever in progress with no side door for laziness or apathy. More perfect is a call to action, a mandate for change, and this is where Miss Maude Terry comes in.

Fast-forward again, over nearly two centuries, through several generations of “manifest destiny,” a few zealous revolutions, one population-culling flu pandemic, and a War to End All Wars, followed by a Second War to End All Wars, because — let’s face it — making war does not end wars. Now we’ve arrived in pre–Mad Men America, land of Bettie Page sausage bangs, Bakelite jewelry, and atomic lampshades. The wartime economy was a rising tide. Black men who served in the military were going to college on the GI Bill, and Black women who worked alongside Rosie the Riveter were more financially solvent than they’d ever been. These people were strivers. A Black middle class burgeoned into being.

In 1947, Miss Maude Terry, a Black schoolteacher who was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, and made her way north to Brooklyn, found herself approaching the age of retirement and saw no reason why Black people should not spend their golden years on the beach if they so desired. She scouted out a twenty-acre swath of land on Long Island’s marshy waterfront, a stretch considered “undesirable” in the midcentury real estate market. She reached out to the property owner’s wife with an ambitious plan to subdivide the land. She found well-heeled Black buyers for the lots, which sold for $750 to $1,000. (Excuse me while I provide oxygen for Tim, a realtor who sees the same acreage priced in the millions today.)

“Redlining” and other racist financial practices buoyed segregation by preventing Black people from getting mortgages. So Maude Terry formed the Azurest Syndicate with her sister, Amaza Lee Meredith, one of the first African American women architects. Thus was born Azurest, one of the nation’s oldest Black summer communities. Maude and Amaza jumped the turnstile of discrimination, brokered loans, and created the neighborhood close to the Sag Harbor home where Tim and I now plan to raise our family. We think Amaza and her life-partner, Edna, would be pleased. Back then, who would have dared to dream of a world in which “their kind” could marry? Tim and I would have been a double hard “no” back then, because he is White and I am Black. Interracial marriage — exogamy! miscegenation! — was explicitly criminalized in Apartheid South Africa, Nazi Germany, and the United States.

Until it wasn’t.

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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.

We are experiencing a moment as terrifying and thrilling as any of the tectonic shifts that have borne us forward through history. I have to confess, even I didn’t see it coming. A swift kick of reactionary zeal caught me by surprise, so I was not surprised at all when I saw a lot of White people react with startled knee-jerk aversity.

People keep saying, “This time feels different,” and it does. It feels momentous — nothing less than the death throes of White supremacy in concert with the birth pangs of racial renaissance. Emotion is sweeping us forward, and I’m tremendously hopeful about our ability to harness this transformative energy. But public passion is a tide that ebbs and flows like the waves on Sag Harbor Bay, ever-changing, ever-changeless. Right now, social media has its hackles up, but that’s a shallow hackle, lasting only a little longer than the flash-bang weapons hurled at the protesters. Those who seek to divide us, for fun and profit, are good at goosing outrage and then watering down the collective urge to actually do something.

Yes, this time feels different, but it won’t be different unless we make it different with commitment, forbearance, and hard work. It’s incumbent upon each of us to do something — Do. Some. Damn. Thing. — however brashly ambitious or seemingly inconsequential. It can’t be performative. No selfie-mode ice-bucket-planking. We have to mean it. We have to live it. We’ve already had the discussion about front of the bus or back of the bus; now’s the time to get on the bus or get left behind.

Looking back on the summer of 2020 — or any other moment that feels like a moment of truth — and being forced to see ourselves through the unsparing lens of hindsight, every one of us will face a personal moment of reckoning:

I had an opportunity to know, and this is what I chose to believe.

I had an opportunity to speak, and this is what I chose to say.

I had an opportunity to act, and this is what I chose to do.

[ Return to review of “This Is the Fire.” ]

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The shops and restaurants in our little community on Long Island, shuttered through the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, had begun to reopen like tentative amber snails, extending one tentacle at a time to feel out the humidity after an early summer storm. People were out walking with baby carriages and dogs. This end of Long Island is on the conservative side, so not everyone wore masks. Some people were clinging to the idea that following recommended guidelines was an unspoken indictment of the president who eschewed them. As if we didn’t have enough dividing us, now we all had to pick sides in the masquerade: barefaced Trumpers on one side, Dr. Fauci followers on the other, trying to maintain a six-foot minimum distance.

The gravel crunched beneath my feet on my way to the boardwalk path. The beach was overcast and full of ghosts. Shinnecock whalers, perhaps, thinking, Masks! Crap. Why didn’t we think of that? This is the sort of acerbic quip that crosses my mind when I get home from work at four in the morning.

The pandemic set the stage for everything that followed. In early spring 2020, the death toll ticked upward—one, fifteen, one thousand, one hundred thousand. With people of color disproportionately impacted, the public health crisis exposed gaping holes in services, food security, education, internet access, and a host of small things essential to human dignity. It lit up the chasm of opportunity between the haves and have-nots, revealing the fault lines and the foundations in our private domestic bubbles. It drew back the curtain on the creeping unkindness and tightfisted cronyism of an anti-intellectual administration.

On May 25, several panicked bystanders observed a 46-year-old Black man being held face-down on the pavement by four Minneapolis police officers. Through videos subsequently posted on Facebook, millions more bore witness. For more than five agonized minutes, one of the officers — posturing, cool and resolute — presses his knee on George Floyd’s neck as Floyd groans, sobs, begs for breath, and calls out to his dead mother before he succumbs to an appalling stillness. The bystanders plead on Floyd’s behalf, but the officer keeps his knee on Floyd’s neck for another three minutes.

Watching this shocking footage, I and every other Black man I know saw the insensibly sluggish murder of ourselves. In agonized real time, I saw Billie Holiday’s strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree. I had to close my door and cry.

But there was work to be done. The disturbing video went viral within hours, galvanizing multitudes who were emotionally raw from weeks of isolation and readily available to march, because the pandemic had shut down schools and workplaces. Protests that were overwhelmingly peaceful during the long summer days turned violent at night. This certainly was not the first time we heard the urgent plea —“Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” — but the optics of George Floyd’s death were so lurid and the circumstances so irrefutably egregious, it unleashed a riptide of grief and rage, exhumed the restless bones of massacred innocents in Tulsa and Rosewood, immolated the myth of desegregation, and dragged the untaught history of the United States out of the root cellar. It brought home an inkling — at last, at least, a glimpse — of Black suffering that White people were powerless to disclaim.

A moment like this comes only a few times in the career of any journalist. A story cracks open the sky and sunders whatever clouds hunker over us, a reverberating thunder followed by blinding flashes of light and electricity. History calls its witnesses. In these singular moments, the work of journalism is a calm, factual face that conceals the frantic endeavor of reportage. There’s much to say about the courage and tenacity of the talented stringers and camera operators who took to the vans, masked superheroes risking their own health and safety without hesitation, as protesters poured into the streets of every major city in the United States.

The protests evoked comparisons to the 1960s, which gives some people hope while causing others to shrink from the stench of nostalgia. On one hand was the exhausted query, “Why are we still marching to resolve this shit?” On the other was validation and living proof that my sisters and their ilk have raised a generation of people who are fiercer, nobler, and more sincerely inclusive and boldly egalitarian than their elders. Thousands of young Americans lay on the pavement in full view of the White House, chanting the last words of George Floyd:

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

The leadership vacuum laid bare by the pandemic was now at critical mass.

The first Saturday after George Floyd’s death, Donald Trump gave a speech about a rocket launch. On Monday, he went briefly to his bunker under the White House and emerged late in the afternoon for a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, where protesters were cleared away with chemical repellent and nonlethal riot measures so he could march over there and pose holding up an apparently unused copy of the Bible — an eerie echo of the Europeans who arrived with their Bibles and a side order of syphilis.

In June, still disdaining the idea of wearing a face mask, he held a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his campaign workers removed stickers that designated proper physical distancing. Turnout was dismal, so maybe it’s coincidence that the rally was followed by a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. In July he sent federal troops into American cities. More viral videos showed unidentified officers rousting unarmed protesters into unmarked vans.

Through the dog days of summer, Barack Obama talked about united efforts in the interest of public health, praised the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters, and advocated for meaningful police reform. Meanwhile, Trump complained that people wore masks because they didn’t like him, denounced “thugs and looters,” and repeatedly raised the specter of military “domination” of US citizens.

In August, we blew by one grim milestone after another: four million cases in the United States, 120,000 dead, 130,000 dead, 140,000 dead.

At the time, we thought that was a lot. That paradigm was about to shift.

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was published in 1963, as JFK was preparing to meet his destiny in Dallas, and Martin Luther King Jr. was praying for sleep on a fetid bunk in Birmingham City Jail. I wasn’t born when Baldwin’s book was written, and Baldwin was dead by the time I read it, so it was shocking how well he knew me. My first shopworn copy from the 1980s is still on my bookshelf. The margins are scrawled with mind-blown notes. Vehement underlining scores almost every page. The book itself is slender and elegant: 144 pages of vibrant storytelling, erudite commentary, dry wit, and uncanny vision. It begins with a sweetly gut-wrenching letter to his nephew and ends with a caveat that rings in my ears today, chilling and prescient: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.

This is the fire. We’re in it. JFK and Obama led us to the rainbow; Trump forced us into the fire. And then he poured gasoline on it.

If only he had responded sooner and more intelligently to the pandemic. If only he’d been an unaffected opportunist instead of a slumlord on steroids. If only he’d never taken out full-page newspaper ads calling for the deaths of innocent Black men. If only he had or had not made a thousand choices that resulted in a critical dearth of leadership at a moment when leadership was desperately needed.

If he’d set an example of competent, compassionate self-governance, we might have been able to ignore the mendacity of the toadies who govern under him. If our young people had not been forced to take to the streets, they might have been able to deny their destiny. Now, they can and must be the groundbreakers who fill this leadership vacuum before the world they are poised to inherit is reduced to a decaying city surrounded by plastic water bottles and unraked wilderness.

People kept saying, “This is a terrible moment to have a terrible president.” I’ll be the contrarian here. It breaks my heart and burns my tongue to say it, but in 2016, Donald Trump was exactly the president we deserved and probably the president we needed in the way you need symptoms that alert you to a disease. Racism is a cancer that has been metastasizing throughout this land ever since Columbus showed up. It’s persisted because the right people had the luxury of ignoring it. Not anymore. With the election of a blatant White supremacist, the problem became palpable, impossible to ignore. It touches every one of us, because it’s a detriment to every aspect of our society.

Trump was not our national lymphoma, he was the perseverating, malignant node in our armpit that finally forced us to acknowledge our worst fears and trudge our reluctant butts into the oncologist’s office. We’re in the waiting room now, our hearts pounding. We know this is bad, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but we know that denial and foot-dragging — any attempt to avoid or delay the inevitably scorching cure — will lead to our demise.

Yes, you know. Come on, now. You do know.

You know how I know you know? Because of the Coopers.

[ Return to review of “This Is the Fire.” ]

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