ActivismFilm / TVPolitics

black and exhausted: the portrait of don lemon

November 28, 2018
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Even during Obama’s term as president, I was not somebody that anybody would describe as a political optimist. There was not a low that I did not think this country would hit that was too low for America. I did not think there was a version of white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, or capitalism that was too extreme to not be absorbed by America in order for it to perpetuate itself. I was secure in that within myself, and always saw my political engagement with certain things like the news or actions like voting as a pragmatic and intellectually responsible to do as a young, Black gay man with no interest in organizing work outside contributing money and sweat power behind those who lead. I had peace with the nature of America, and vowed to not let this country age me.

My mother would remind me that she lived during Nixon, both Bushes, and Reagan and she would not be here today if she let each presidency that was conservative and felt even more focused on annihilating the most vulnerable of those in society age her prematurely. She would tell me that we fight when it is time to fight and we rest when we need rest, and anything beyond that is exhaustion. And an exhausted Black person is not valuable to any resistance than plans on transforming into change.

I was reading Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” which was assigned to me for school when my mother told me this sage advice. I thought about the depiction of Dorian Gray’s rotting portrait: “Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.” Surely Blackness is a exquisite thing, but I thought that I didn’t need to become a tragedy in order to sustain this fact. So, I took my mother’s advice.

I held on to her advise even in years like 2015 when it felt like a lot of Black people who were given mainstream space to write and speak were drunk off The Obama Family’s symbolism. I fought, intellectually, through literature the things I opposed about his presidency. I did not rest because it felt like the plan was to create so much Black complacency that we were so dizzied by the warmth of having a Black president that the same old interlocking systems of domination would not be wrestled with because we were too in love with the Black man that symbolizes the thing our grandparents thought could never be.

One can measure political despair by Don Lemon’s face. When I first saw Don Lemon on my television in 2015, he was dangerously diplomatic, he would bargain with racial cruelty under the guise of objective journalism. He notoriously asked for more proof when presented with a video of a police officer in a classroom dragging a young Black girl violently. Lemon reinforced ideas of respectability through policing the use of the n-word and fashion choices of other Black people. His eyes were round and bright then. He held a kind of innocence only truly able to be held by a man smothered in patriarchal and capitalist power. Billie Holiday sang, “But God bless the child that’s got his own.” It is easy to think because you, yourself, “has got” that everyone else has the same access “to have”. This is false, and I believe the realization is slowly showing itself on Don Lemon’s face.

His face, unlike the portrait in Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray”, Lemon’s face is not hidden away. It is on full display on computer and television screens around the globe.

I do not watch the news daily or even weekly on television because it puts my mental health in the balance. The facts are dreadful enough, but the imagery and the theatrics some commentators perform is enough for me to leave the program with an imminent feeling of doom. Same with news anchors with midwestern accents that report on the world’s horror with the journalistic coldness that we are taught is objective and professional, but feels sociopathic. Instead I rely on my friends who are active in activism and politics to keep me abreast on what is going on and I prefer to read the news, the less opinion-based the better. On the rare occasion, I do do watch the news, I watch Don Lemon.

Watching Don Lemon has felt like viewing CNN’s answer to the picture of Dorian Gray. The bright-faced portrait of a problematic man has melted right in front of my eyes, between commercial breaks. Monday night I watched Don Lemon look America in the eyes and say the president is “waging a war on reality.” Don Lemon will always look kind and beautiful physically, but he looked aged in a way that has nothing to do with the amount of years on this Earth. He looks like a cis Black gay man that got a break in the world and thought that he was proof of the American promise, realizing he was more of a distraction from the American nightmare. He wears the realization well. The disillusionment lives right underneath his eyes, on his forehead, and in the militancy in his voice.

Don Lemon’s performance on CNN is quieter than the Shakespearean theatrics given to us by Rachel Maddow. He’s more relaxed than the icey dignity Anderson Cooper brings to his stage. Don Lemon’s performance is a quiet dance, like a ballet, where a boy breaks with fantasy and plummets into reality beautifully, gracefully, and problematically. And with each look of concern, we know that America has seemingly gotten more cartoonish and indefensible.

Due to Lemon’s face, I know when it time to rest which is what I found even more powerful in this political moment. Whereas underneath Obama, I felt the need to create art around the things I felt were being normalized like global terrorism, police brutality and cruelty via deportation. Underneath Trump’s presidency, I noticed the most imperative part of my survival has not been about knowing when to fight, there are so many opportunities to resist and oppose because of the heinous nature and speed this administration creates toxic policies and environments. Instead, reminding myself of my mother telling me as a child to remember when to rest has proven to be most invaluable. It reminds me of my promise to myself to never let this country age me. I must commit to my peace as much as I do to the wars I find fit to fight. Don Lemon’s face has served as a canvas to remind myself to rest and prioritize restoration lest I want to find myself Black and empty. Black and exhausted.

In a strange way Don Lemon’s face over these past years has returned me to my mother, her words, and consequently, the wisdom I need to thrive and inspire others to do the same even during dismal political times. Trump’s presidency and the revealing of the extent of evil that can be found in America may not be exclusively the reason for Don Lemon’s growing dread that showed up between his hairline and his chin. Lemon came out the closet as a gay man, and these public confessions and connections with other experiences that differ from your own despite having the same social identity can also be contributed to delivering him to a more critical awareness around political issues.

Still, the shift in Lemon’s face is not just simply of a man with more awareness or empathy.

Witnessing Don Lemon on television is not about gaining information on what is happening in the world, but seeing in real-time an emotion that usually happens so quickly that you can’t even recall when it began: disillusionment. He wears it well, so I don’t have to.