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"This book had been inside me for a long time," the CNN Tonight anchor says of This Is the Fire

By Adam Carlson
March 19, 2021 11:20 AM
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Don Lemon
| Credit: Reto Sterchi/Redux

This is how Don Lemon's latest book ends: in flames.

That's not so surprising. This Is the Fire, which was published on Tuesday, is as urgent — and at times, as intimate and painful — as the book that inspired it, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, an essay collection about race and racism. One answers the other.

"When James Baldwin said, 'No more water the fire next time' — we're in the fire. And I think we don't have any more fires," the CNN anchor, 55, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "So we need to put this one out. We need to deal with this one."

"That book is filled with passion. I feel like James Baldwin, that book just kind of rolled out of him in like, a night or two. ... That is the same sort of thing, and I think the way, the most honest way that I can be, is just to say it, right?" Lemon continues.

There are some structural similarities to the books (both invoke the authors' nephews) and there are differences; Lemon says he never wanted his inspiration to become derivation.

This Is the Fire unusually blends memoir, journalism and historical research to recount not just Lemon's history with racism, but the country's.

"When you think about all the factors that come together that make me Don Lemon — I'm a Black, gay man, American, who has suffered discrimination, obviously, and who has a platform as the only person of color in primetime ... I have done things on television in this platform that other people have not dared to do and still weather the storm," the CNN Tonight presenter says. "That's where I am right now, and that's why I'm proud. And that's why I feel like I can speak in this book with some authority."

For more on Don Lemon's new book and his life at home with fiancé Tim Malone, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands now.

DON LEMON

One passage from his book recounts the 1811 German Coast uprising in Louisiana, a failed slave revolt for freedom. Another sees Lemon remembering a recent brush with mistreatment while he was shopping in Sag Harbor, New York. In a third section, Lemon remembers the sudden death of his beloved big sister, Leisa, and the long shadow of grief — and how that bound him to the family of Stephon Clark, fatally shot by police in 2018.

Lemon's book traverses all of this territory and more. It's a heady mix.

"I would say to that: Why not? Why not write this book?" he says. "And especially now, when in the last few years I've been at the nexus of everything that's going on in the country, especially when it comes to social issues and issues of race during Charlottesville, during Breonna Taylor, during Ahmaud Arbery, especially during George Floyd."

He also says he knew that now, right now, was when he needed to publish.

"This book had been inside me for a long time. I've been wanting to write this book and I kept saying, 'It's not time, it's not time,'" Lemon says. He had actually been working on another book, "about wellness and living your best life kind of thing," when Floyd was killed in police custody last May. "And the moment that ... happened, I said that this was the moment."

This Is the Fire has an intentionally wide angle in what it covers: "It is to give people a sense of history, so that we know what we're up against in this country, and I don't think that we can deal with racism — we can deal with unconscious bias, we can do any sort of -ism, any sort of discrimination — unless we start from the beginning."

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Don Lemon
| Credit: Jim Spellman/WireImage

But Lemon's book looks forward as much as it looks back.

"There's one part in the book, toward the end, where I talk about how change happens. When I talk about how white people quite honestly have to be open to learning about these things, and not necessarily get to do it on their own, and not necessarily relying on Black people to teach them," Lemon says. "And also the Black people, that we have to let go of our righteous indignation and realize that we're all in this together and there's some things that we're going to have to teach to each other."

He goes on: "And so that's really, for me, the call to action that we need to do ... to be a part of this grand experiment of a more perfect union." That would mean, he says, "that we strive to achieve that on a daily basis, maybe even a moment-by-moment, minute-by-minute basis."

He's looking forward to what that looks like.

"I'm excited about the process of this book being out there. I'm excited about the process of people reading it," Lemon says. "I'm also excited about the process of how people experience it and whether that is positively or negatively, it matters not to me. What matters is that — do you have an experience that they can have a discussion with?"

He's hopeful, too, even as he admits, "I do think that we are standing at the precipice now."

"I'm optimistic. That's the crux of who I am," he says. "Now, you can be serious and you can have concerns about the future, right? Or about anything and still be optimistic about it. I think that at the end of the day, there are enough people in this country who are like-minded, [or] some who may not be like-minded but who are willing to move in reality and in love, that that will be enough to carry us through."