The trail-blazing journalist sets her own path
When Jemele Hill’s literary agent approached her with the idea of writing a memoir, she was stunned. “It was hard to gauge just how much interest there was in me telling my story,” Hill told me. For sports fans like myself, and people who are active on Twitter, this is surprising to hear, given her insightful and humorous takes on social media, along with being one of the leading voices in journalism. A proud graduate of Michigan State, she began her career as a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, and then as a sports reporter for the Detroit Free Press.
In 2006, she joined ESPN and was a regular on SportsCenter, ESPN First Take and Outside the Lines. During her 12 year career with ESPN, she co-hosted His & Hers along with Michael Smith, and the pair later became evening hosts for SportsCenter. While Hill experienced many successes as a trailblazing journalist at ESPN, it did have its challenges.
As a Black woman, who has been a leading voice in sports, Hill has never backed down when it came to sharing her opinion on injustices happening in America and the greater world. This was no more evident than in 2017, when she made a series of critical tweets about President Donald Trump, and was openly critical of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, for threatening to bench players on his team who did not stand for the flag. The latter event led to her being suspended from ESPN for two weeks. However, through it all, she has remained triumphant.
Since leaving ESPN in 2018, Hill has joined The Atlantic, and started her own podcast production company, The Unbothered Network. Last month, she released Uphill: A Memoir, her first book, and was joined by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in San Francisco as part of the City Arts Lecture series.
Leading up to the event in San Francisco, she spoke with East Bay Express about her memoir, what it means to be an anti-racist journalist and the Unbothered Network.
EBX: You have such a large following on social media, you have some of the most insightful and humorous takes on Twitter and you had some highly rated shows during your time on ESPN—yet you were a little stunned when your literary agent presented you with the opportunity to write a memoir—why is that?
Jemele Hill: I guess in my mind, for so long, I just had the idea planted that when I did finally start writing books, that there will be fiction books, because that’s what I most want to write. So the idea of writing a memoir completely threw me for a loop. I’m not young, but I’m not old, and so you think about somebody writing a memoir, that maybe they will have lived twice as much life as I had. So it just was a little surprising. But, you know, in hindsight, I guess it makes a lot of sense. I was somebody who was very much in the news, I have a huge platform, but everybody who has those characteristics, you don’t necessarily want to hear their story.
EBX: How long did it take you to write this memoir? What were the most challenging parts of the book for you to discuss?
Jemele Hill: This process started in 2019. I didn’t even know how to start writing a book; this is my first one. Once I started to get a little more clarity about how I wanted to begin, I probably started poking around, like sometime in the summer of 2019. The first 50 pages, at least in my mind, were not very good.
I got two great pieces of advice that really unlocked some things for me.
Walter Mosley told me to put myself on a writing schedule. That was very good advice. I was interviewing him for my podcast, Jemele Hill Is Unbothered, and he talked to me about the importance of turning writing into a discipline. He said, no matter where he is in the world, he writes for at least two hours a day.
The second bit of advice I got was from rapper Rick Ross. Rick Ross was working on his memoir, around the same time that I was working on mine. And he told me he basically broke his life down into 12-15 pivotal moments. And used that as a guide to understand how his story flows together. So I began to see my life in the same way.
EBX: A large part of the book focuses on the relationship between you and your mother, and some of the challenges that existed with her battling addiction. Did this book serve as a form of therapy for you? If so, how?
Jemele Hill: In some ways, it did. I mean, a lot of the incidents, and a lot of the things that I wrote about in the book were incidents that I dealt with a long time ago. And my mother and I had reached the stage of forgiveness some years ago.
It conjured up emotions, I hadn’t felt the first time or the first couple of times when I unpacked them, and I think in mostly a healthy way. I think there were some things that I already reconciled with, that it actually allowed me to reflect and dig deeper on.
EBX: I’d like to talk with you about anti-racism. You’ve also been described as an outspoken journalist. Do you think that is accurate, or is that just you being an anti-racist?
Jemele Hill: Yeah, outspoken is an interesting word. I guess if you asked me to describe myself, I don’t think I’d describe myself necessarily that way. I think people consider me to be outspoken just because I don’t really have a problem sharing my opinion and sharing it confidently. So I guess the answer is, I’m aware of the perception; I’m not sure it always fits. Because it’s so intrinsic to who I am, that when I hear the word outspoken, it’s almost like I’m trying to be that.
What I love about maybe the label of being an anti-racist, is that it’s a proactive label. It immediately indicates that you’re not just avoiding racism; you are actively trying to work against it. I have had the pleasure of sitting on a panel or two, with Dr. Kendi, and what I love about the work that he does is the fact that he takes it from a passive level to you being active, to you actually challenging yourself to do something more than just kind of be a fly on the wall. When racism happens, you have to actually get involved to do something about it.
EBX: As more Black cultural influencers start their own media companies, do you think it will be challenging to navigate the corporate media space and stay true to anti-racist principles?
Jemele Hill: I think that it’s gonna be tough to navigate the space. It’s tougher than it should be, I should say. I don’t think that the podcast world has expanded in a way that reflects the depth of who Black people are. When I look at the podcasts that receive the bigger budgets, the publicity, the marketing, you know, there’s a very narrow number of those. It feels like a lot of times in this space, they put Black content creators under unfair scrutiny, and that, if they’re not as popular and as big as Joe Rogan, then they’re not worth investing in.
So many of the other podcasts that are successful did not start off with people who had big names. It was organically grown. They grew and developed an audience, and people had patience. I don’t know sometimes if the content hubs had the same patience with us, and that’s concerning to me, because we shouldn’t all have to be Meghan Markle to get a podcast.
EBX: Since leaving ESPN, you’ve joined The Atlantic, but you also created a podcast network that aims to create a slate of programming for and by Black women. How will the experiences you’ve had so far in your career influence the stories we eventually see from the Unbothered Network?
I just think about when I got into this business, and what this business has looked like for Black women who want to be in a space where they’re driving content with their opinions, and their critical thinking—and it was a very lonely space; it was a very white space. When I got into podcasting myself with Spotify in 2018, there were certainly some Black women who were podcasting, and I just thought overall, that most of the Black women who were podcasting needed support. They needed marketing, they needed infrastructure, they needed to be paid better, so that they could focus on being just a podcaster, or that they didn’t have to take on 10 other jobs that allowed them to do this thing that they love.
So I wanted to figure out a way that I could be of service. And, at the same time, dive into the full wholeness of who Black women are. I wanted to have a network that looked at how Black women love how we laugh, how we relate, how we worship, just showing our full spectrum.
I may not hit on everything, but I feel like this podcast network will hit on most things.