CNN anchor Don Lemon urged students on Tuesday to view their differences — such as race, gender, and sexuality — not as impediments, but as motivation to succeed.
Although his 45-minute speech in the Bright Family Screening Room broached serious topics, he struck an informal, improvisatory tone, even ending with an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday” to celebrate his 47th birthday on Friday.
“You’re so strong and so great and so amazing,” he said to the audience of 106. “Because you’re so fabulous, you need those little inhibitors to show you that you can actually make it, because otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to get your head in the room. Those perceived shortcomings are silent motivators.”
Lemon, who heads CNN Newsroom during primetime on the weekends, was invited to campus by Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests (EBONI) to be the keynote speaker for the college’s annual
African American Heritage Month.
Lemon said he has only been on television since he was 30, but in the past 16 years, he has won an Edward R. Murrow award for his coverage of the Washington, D.C. snipers, and an Emmy for his story about real estate in the greater Chicago area.
In an on-campus press conference held before the event, he discussed the state of the media industry, and said that cable news — like most other industries — still has problems with racial diversity, but that people who want to see change should vote with their wallets.
“We do what we can on the inside of the organization,” he said. “But I think it’s up to the people who are the customers, the consumers, of that product or organization to really make a difference.”
Jessica Joseph, the president of EBONI, said her organization chose to bring Lemon to campus because he could relate to a range of students and because of his affable personality.
“He was a really great choice,” said the senior marketing communication major. “I just like how casual he is. I like that he is so down-to-earth.”
Throughout his speech, Lemon spoke about the obstacles he has faced from his ethnicity and sexuality. He said any hindrances that arise from those traits should only be reason to work harder.
“All those things that I thought were holding me back,” he said, “people saying, ‘You’re not going to make it, you’re African-American’—those were becoming my motivators that were making me sometimes the smartest person in the room.”
Drawing from his experience in writing his memoir, Transparent, he also spoke about the fear of failure.
“I told myself ‘no’ for months as I was contemplating writing a book,” he said. “By doing so, I was limiting my own progress and success.”
Lemon said the writing process only took a few months, but that he was afraid of the repercussions of coming out publicly for the first time as gay — even though he only spends a few pages talking about his sexuality. Since its release in 2011, though, Lemon said his fears have not been realized.
“Now that I came out, men want to have my babies. And more women want to have my babies,” he said, laughing.
Instead of being afraid of foundering, he encouraged students to embrace risks.
“I was living with the threat of failure. I was not playing it safe,” he said. “No one has achieved anything great — no one has broken barriers, no one has started a revolution — by playing it safe.”
Citing Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, he said that being disliked for unpopular ideologies is not the same as being wrong, and told students not to shy from taking stances they believe are true.
“I love it when people criticize me. I thrive on it. Because if you don’t have 10 haters a day, you’re not doing something right,” he said. “I’m serious — haters gonna hate.”
Even with his success, though, Lemon said he still appreciates his roots. He choked up as he recalled being driven through New York City on New Year’s Eve, suddenly realizing that he had a police escort.
But Lemon cautioned students not to take their triumphs for granted since, he said, prosperity is hard to come by, but easy to lose.
“Although I dreamt of success, never in a million years would I have thought that I’d actually have a platform, the position, the power that I have,” he said. “Never in a million years would I have guessed that I would be standing here in front of you.”
After his speech, dozens of students lined up outside the Bright Family Screening Room to get their books signed and pose for photos.
“I thought it was a great expression of Don,” said Agatha Kereere, a sophomore journalism major. “I liked that he mixed in with humor. He wasn’t afraid to be humorous, he wasn’t afraid to show his feelings and cry. He felt very genuine.”
And it is that genuineness — a penchant for honesty that Lemon acknowledges can make him seem blunt at times — that he attributes to his success.
“That’s my motivation,” he said, “for people to be informed and have the truth told to them.”