A candid Don Lemon, news anchor on CNN, talked about everything from his struggles with diversity to text messages from his mom while speaking for two hours with Emerson students February 26—even shedding tears at one point.
Lemon, who is African American and gay, revealed his sexual orientation in his 2011 autobiography, Transparent.
“I’m old school, most people are old school, and I know how most black folks think,” Lemon said when a student asked him about coming out. “Yes, it was a big deal.”
Lemon’s well-attended appearance at the Paramount Center marked the final event in the month-long African American Heritage Month series, organized by Emerson’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and GLBTQ Resources.
He kept his talk conversational with students, and at one point hugged a young man who is black and straight for calling Lemon “my hero” for his decision to publicly reveal his sexual orientation.
“Never in a million years did I guess I’d be standing here in front of you offering advice, counsel, and wisdom,” said Lemon, who began to weep about 35 minutes into his talk, when recalling the first time he received a police escort as a CNN reporter while traveling with producers in a sport utility vehicle to cover New Year’s Eve festivities in New York City.
“I realized this police escort was for me,” he said through tears. “I remember when I didn’t have money and I had to beg a police officer to let me on the train so I could get [home] from school. And here I was having a police escort through New York City.”
Lemon, who talked about his big break anchoring the weekend news on NBC’s Today show before joining CNN in 2006, spoke at length about his experience being a minority in the broadcast news business—and how diversity in newsrooms can improve coverage.
He told a story about a colleague, a producer who is an African American woman, who, in 1991, quashed another colleague’s idea to interview the pastor of a police officer who beat Rodney King on videotape.
“She stood up and said, ‘I think we should interview Rodney King’s first-grade teacher,’” Lemon said. “‘Because interviewing the police officer’s pastor makes about as much sense as that.’”
“That’s the need for diversity in the newsroom,” he said.
Aiming his comments at aspiring broadcast journalists, Lemon said minority students ought to use their ethnicity or sexual orientation as a “motivator” but not “the source of inspiration” for pursuing a career in the field.
“Every semester, I get an intern…and if that student is a minority of any type…they’ll say, [for example], ‘I want to show the world I’m a strong black woman who can make it in this business,’” Lemon said. “That was part of my motivation, but that wasn’t my inspiration.”
“Your circumstances have everything and nothing to do with where you’ll end up,” he said.
Lemon stressed hard work, having a positive attitude, moving forward, not letting your racial or sexual identity hold you back, and to “live with the threat of failure.”
He also told students to “be careful what you wish for.”
“I don’t get much sleep,” Lemon said. “I ran all around the country…chasing a dream. I don’t have a family… I don’t get to go home much for holidays. I work weekends. I don’t have children.”
But, in one of many references to his close relationship with mother—that included reading an entire text-message conversation from a day earlier about a home she is considering purchasing—Lemon said, “My momma loves me.”