Journalist Jemele Hill was speaking her mind long before those tweets about Trump
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Sports host and commentator Jemele Hill was catapulted into a political firestorm in September of 2017 when she wrote a series of tweets that included the words Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists. Hill, who at the time was a co-host for ESPN's "SportsCenter," went on to tweet that she thought Trump was a threat to democracy and unfit to be president. Critics attacked Hill for what they called ESPN's liberal bias, and Trump called for the sports network to fire her. But as Hill writes in her new memoir, "Uphill," long before those tweets, she was speaking her mind as a sportswriter and columnist in ways that both galvanized and polarized her readers and the public.
Jemele Hill is now a contributing writer for The Atlantic, and she sat down to talk about her new book with our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley, host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: There's a childhood memory that Jemele Hill often comes back to. She's 7 years old in the back seat of her mother's car on the way to see the movie "E.T." when someone crashes into the side of their car. The impact propelled Jemele out of the back windshield and into the trunk. And for a few brief moments, Jemele believes she actually died. Growing up, she'd often ask herself, why did God bring me back to life? What was my purpose?
One thing she knew, even at 7, is that she wanted to live the life her mother, father and grandmother dreamed about but were unable to - a life of travel, experiences, success. That desire set Jemele on a singular path as a sports journalist, for a time, the only Black woman to have a sports column in a newspaper, an anchor for ESPN and the voice of opinion on some of the most divisive topics and cultural divides of our time. Jemele's journey began in the place where she was born, Detroit, Mich., to a teen mother and a heroin-addicted father. Hill's escape from her circumstances came through writing and a deep desire to explore the world. Her memoir, "Uphill," comes out this week.
And before we get started, I wanted to let the audience know that Jemele and I come from the same place. We're two Black women who grew up in Detroit at the same time and the same neighborhoods raised by single moms and were part of a high school journalism program that had a huge impact on the trajectory of our lives. So you're definitely going to be hearing some familiarity in this conversation.
Jemele Hill, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JEMELE HILL: Thank you. I appreciate you having me and good to reconnect with you.
MOSLEY: Yes. Well, let's start with your most infamous tweets. You've said those tweets about former President Donald Trump were probably the most unoriginal words you've ever written. And yet that series of tweets are a big part of what you're known for. Are you proud or resentful of that?
HILL: Well, I'm not sure if either description fits. I mean, I guess I'm definitely not resentful of it in the sense that I don't regret doing it. And even with the negative backlash and the death threats and all those sort of things that came with it, I'm glad that I said what I said. But I hate it that I had to say it, and I hated it that it was true. To imply that I was proud of it also would mean that my perspective on it is like, oh, I'm glad I was proven right. No, I wish everything that I said in that tweet were wrong. But unfortunately, that has proven not to be the case. And many of the things I expressed in those tweets about the former president have lingered.
MOSLEY: The words you use to describe yourself - unbothered, unbossed - it's the reputation that you've made for yourself. But after that tweet storm and that media frenzy around it, you really wanted your mother's support. And this memoir starts at that moment. A few months after the tweets, your life had essentially been blown up, and you had already decided that your future was not with ESPN. But your mom did not have the reaction you wanted or needed at the time. What did she say to you?
HILL: I guess to give it some more context, my mother is old school. And her perspective is that you should respect the office of the president regardless of who's in it. And in fact, that was one of the first things she said to me. And I believe my response was it's hard to respect an office when the person in it doesn't respect it. And so, you know, we had a little bit of a back and forth. She was very worried about my job security. But when you see yourself being discussed on every major network and people are making assumptions about who you are or why you said something and all these other things and you're just in the national conversation, you're looking for a little refuge and some solace and some consolation and some support. And this is not to say that my mother, you know, wasn't supportive. I mean, she was, but initially, her reaction was not what I needed it to be.
MOSLEY: Right. I mean, the context of all of this is that you were hosting ESPN's crown jewel, "SportsCenter." You and your co-host, Michael Smith, had previously hosted a show called "His & Hers," and it was unapologetically the two of you. It was so you. And it did so well that the higher-ups at ESPN moved you up to "SportsCenter." But while that was the prize, you describe it as losing a bit of yourself.
HILL: Yeah. And I described it that way because, you know, "SportsCenter" is, as you said, the crown jewel. It's ESPN's baby. Like, this is the brand that made ESPN become a fixture in pop culture in the United States that made them the most dominant sports media company in our country. And because of that legacy status, "SportsCenter" is the show that a lot of executives at the company want to be involved in and they have input in and opinions about. And so there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen, naturally. That's what the brand kind of lends itself to. So when we joined "SportsCenter," we got all the things that we had been working for when we were on "His & Hers" because we used to joke and call "His & Hers" the little show that could. We were in a dilapidated studio that was one of the oldest studios on campus. My co-host, Michael Smith, used to refer to us in the grind of putting out this daily show as selling tapes out the trunk. And that is kind of what it felt like, is that, OK, we got this product. Everybody likes it, but we underground right now.
And when we got signed to a major label to go with the further analogy, we're suddenly thrust into having 15, 20 people on our show staff as opposed to like four to six, which is what we normally have. And we wanted the show to be what we were accustomed to when we did "His & Hers." The show is about us. It's about our relationship, our friendship, how we banter and go back and forth with each other. We're the centerpiece of the show. And "SportsCenter" is different because this - it obviously carries its own big brand. But the way "SportsCenter" format wise is was not really conducive to what we were used to doing, and we understood that. And so we wanted it to be a bit of a more of a merging.
MOSLEY: Taking the audience back to this time, to this moment, I mean, we're talking about 2016, 2017. So culturally, politically, we were in a very different space. An example of this is that you and your co-host, Michael, would quote from your favorite films, which were Black films, but your producers felt like that was alienating because white audiences wouldn't know what you were talking about. What were some of the movie references that made executives say they didn't understand, that were too Black?
HILL: Oh, man, we used to make references to "Boyz N The Hood," "Boomerang," you know. I mean, and the thing is, the movie references - you know this - if you've seen a movie so many times, that once you get past the lines everybody quotes, then - you know, like in "Coming To America," the line everybody might quote is, what is that velvet, right? Because everybody knows what that is, right? We might say something more nuanced. You know, like in "Boomerang," at some point in the movie, I think when Strange was hitting on Eddie Murphy, and he said something like, not even if Jesus was pouring it; like, he would not entertain her. And so I used to say that all the time, be like, you know - if some sports issue would come up or some question, I'd be like, not even if Jesus was pouring it.
HILL: So we would make these references, you know, the things that we culturally kind of grew up on and came of age to - "Friday," you know, those kind of references. And, you know, when we did, our producers would just be kind of frustrated with us because (laughter) they didn't get all the references. And so their concern was that the people watching wouldn't get them, either, and that that would be a turnoff. And my co-host, Mike, is like - he used to tell them all the time, you'll learn to like it (laughter). And they did. And in fact, we created an entire skit out of our movie references, and it became the hallmark of the show.
And I explained that - I told that story in the book because often in traditional media spaces or traditional content spaces, particularly when it comes to culture and Blackness, they - the Blackness is what makes them want to hire you, but then when they get you, they want all the Blackness gone. And it's like, hmm.
MOSLEY: They want you, but not you.
HILL: Right. Exactly. You know, they want a Black face but not necessarily a Black voice. And so the great part about doing "His & Hers" is that we did our show our way. And Mike and I decided from the beginning that if this show is going to fail, it's going to fail because of us. It is not going to fail because we decided to do their version of TV and be the version of the people they think people want to see on television.
MOSLEY: You are relentless on Twitter. You have 1.4 million followers. You speak your mind. You've said you get an enormous satisfaction when you see somebody delete a tweet. And if you made them delete their account, you're throwing a party.
MOSLEY: What is it about that discourse on Twitter that gets you high like that?
HILL: Well, because a lot of people who think they want the smoke really don't want the smoke. And, you know, a lot of times on Twitter, people say things to you because they don't anticipate you'll ever read it or that you certainly will never respond to it. And I often make this joke, but it's actually rooted in truth. So, you know, when I go get my hair braided, usually that's, like, a four- to six-hour job. So I got four to six hours that I'm in a braiding salon. So that's a lot of time. And I always joke the last time that you want to say something impolite to me is when I'm getting my hair braided 'cause I'm a have time that day.
HILL: For real. I'm a be stationary and, you know, trying to get through this process, and I don't have any problem making you - you know, sort of making you an example, the wrong kind of example that you don't want to be. And in general, I know that people who have high profiles and certainly celebrities are told this often is that you shouldn't feed the trolls. You shouldn't say - you know, you shouldn't respond to the negativity. And I'm not saying that you have to do that all the time. But what I am saying is that it's OK to establish boundaries, too, where people need to know that you just can't say anything to me.
And regardless of my public profile, it's not OK that you say it because there's this other warped idea that the higher the profile, the more license people have to disrespect them. And I'm like, I'm not - I don't get down like that. So you disrespect me, you're going to get exactly what you gave me. And so yeah. So that's generally my mentality. I don't spend - you know, I have playful clapbacks, for sure. And - while I don't want all of that to sap my energy. But to me, it's about boundaries of respect, even in disagreement.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with sports journalist, writer and cultural commentator Jemele Hill, who has written a new memoir about her life growing up in Detroit and her rise from a newspaper reporter to a cultural commentator and the co-anchor of ESPN's crown jewel, "SportsCenter." The book is called "Uphill." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today I'm talking with Jemele Hill, sports journalist, contributing writer for The Atlantic and a podcaster. She's written a new memoir about her life and career called "Uphill."
Most of this memoir is getting to know your mother and grandmother. Jemele, it's kind of as if you're saying, if you want to know who I am, you first have to understand who my mother and those who raised me are. Was that your intention when you first sat down to write?
HILL: Yeah, it was always my intention to tell a multigenerational story because I felt as if the experiences of my mother and grandmother became so defining for me. And they were the two most influential women in my life when I was growing up, and so I felt like the most appropriate way to give people an indication or insight into who I was is to also tell their stories and to explain how their approach to life, how their disappointments, how their dreams, how their failures, how navigating those with them - the impact that it had on who I eventually became.
MOSLEY: Your mom - her name is Denise - had you when she was a teenager. She likes to tell the story of how you were born after she beat your entire family in a game of Monopoly, which is probably one of the Blackest introductions to the world ever.
HILL: (Laughter) Right. If only - the only one that would have been Blacker, if we would have been playing Uno or something like that.
MOSLEY: Exactly. That's what I was thinking when I read it.
HILL: Maybe. Maybe.
MOSLEY: Or spades or something.
HILL: Or spades. Right, right.
MOSLEY: Yeah. You write that it's her favorite story to tell. Why do you think she loves it so much? And what does it say about her and her relationship with you?
HILL: Well, I think - and I say this tongue in cheek, but I do think it's partly true. It's because she did finally get Boardwalk and Park Place, and that is like...
HILL: That's a huge thing. And, you know, it's hard to get those two properties. They're the most expensive on the Monopoly board. And she was finally winning. And I like hearing her tell that story because it's very apparent - and my mother always made me feel this way - that my mother, despite being pregnant with me when she was 18 years old or having me when she was 18 years old, she wanted me, and she wanted me to be here. And I think it had a lot to do with the unhealed trauma she was carrying, her having such a complicated relationship with my grandmother, who - she didn't get the nurturing I think she would have wanted to get.
And so my mother's way of combating that and solving that issue was to have someone who would nurture her and she could always nurture. You know, she was searching for a level of unconditional love that she felt like she had not received. And so I think that's also the reason why I started the story there, is because for my mother, this was a very conscious decision, to have me. And so I think, you know, it just kind of set our relationship on a particular, you know, course.
MOSLEY: You learned a lot about your mother before she had you. She went through a lot. She started using heroin when she was 11 years old in part because she didn't feel safe with her mother, your grandmother. She was molested by a relative at a very young age. And you would see her trauma play out throughout your childhood, as you mention. And at the same time, she was a good mother. She worked. She went to school. She raised you. She functioned in the world. When did you learn about the traumas that she experienced in her early years?
HILL: Well, I'm trying to pinpoint an age, but it was not something that she hid. I mean, for a time, she did because probably, you know, I wasn't age appropriate. But I definitely knew it by the time I got to middle school. And part of the reason that I knew it is because of my mother being molested by her uncle from ages 4 through 11. My mother wanted to make sure early on that I understood my own bodily autonomy, and that I also understood that the lines of communication were open with us, and that if anybody made me feel uncomfortable, if anybody touched me in a certain way, she wanted me to know early on that I could tell her because she felt like that was something she did not get. And so I think part of the way the trauma came out - I mean, a mother is going to have a certain amount of protectiveness, regardless. But with her, it was to the point where I think it was crippling almost because she was so in fear that the same thing that would happen to her would happen to me.
MOSLEY: She would study people around you.
HILL: She would. I mean, and she was very intense about this. And I didn't really understand it. And then, as I got a little bit older, as she started to explain, you know, what that meant and why - and even then, it's still a confusing concept for a child to really wrap their head around. But, you know, I was starting to get it. And so she didn't hide it from me. And then, obviously, as I even got even a little more older than that, she - you know, she talked to me about being violently raped in Texas. And so, you know, I had a very early understanding of what sexual assault was in terms of what actually happens.
But I didn't have any understanding of what is the result of that, as in the trauma and the PTSD that my mother was dealing with. I didn't understand how severe it was because I didn't understand psychologically what happens to a lot of women who endure that abuse. And so I had to see my mother go through this level of PTSD in real time. And so it was very terrifying to kind of - to witness that.
MOSLEY: You started to see your mother slip away. There was a very specific moment in time. You were actually 11. And up until you were 11, she was ingesting heroin, but then, she started shooting it. There's this passage on Page 41 starting at, I was 11 years old.
HILL: (Reading) I was 11 years old when my mother began shooting heroin, the same age my mother was when she first tried the drug. My mother was in a deep depression. It had been a difficult five years, which included my mother's rape, the car accident that almost killed me, the divorce, our home being foreclosed, and living in that one-bedroom, [expletive] hole apartment on Joy Road. I could feel my mother slipping away even though I didn't know exactly what was pulling her in such a dark direction. She was no longer snorting heroin like when she was younger. She was letting people inject her. Many of the men she was involved with during this time not only supported her drug habit, heroin or otherwise, but gave her money to pay bills and take care of our basic needs. I never went hungry, and we never had the electricity or gas shut off. I knew we couldn't afford much, but I didn't need for anything. The worst part for me was watching my mother deteriorate. I was the one dealing with her mood swings and witnessed to her nodding out from time to time. She could be present and not there at the same time. She could be right in front of me, and I would miss her.
DAVIES: Sports journalist and cultural commentator Jemele Hill, reading from her new memoir, "Uphill." We'll hear more of the conversation she recorded with Tonya Mosley after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "MAIDEN VOYAGE / EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, back with sports journalist, writer and cultural commentator Jemele Hill. Her new memoir is called "Uphill." It's about her life growing up in Detroit with her mom, who struggled with addiction, and her career as a sports reporter and cultural commentator. She was co-anchor of ESPN's flagship show, "SportsCenter," when she tweeted about then-President Donald Trump, calling him a white supremacist. She left ESPN and is now a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a podcast host. She spoke with FRESH AIR's guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.
MOSLEY: Your mom used what she had to survive. I mean, she also had boyfriends and marriages and men who would take care of you two financially during this time. You directed your anger about what you were witnessing and what you saw and your mom's slipping away to the men in her life and not your mom. But was there ever a time when you were angry towards her?
HILL: Oh, there definitely was. You know, and when I tell the story about when she read my diary, and she could feel that anger from the pages because I was very mad at her. And my journal was one of the few places I could release that anger. And it's a very complicated situation for a child to be in, in the sense that, you know, as mother and daughter, you have to present a united front. But at the same time, within that is that I'm carrying a level of anger and resentment toward my mother because of the situations that she's putting us in. Because when I come home from school, I don't know what person I'm going to find there, not as in another person physically, I mean as in, who is my mother on that day? You know, is she going to be in a mood, cranky? I mean, is she going to be high?
Like, all of these things are running through my mind on a daily basis, you know, during those particularly troublesome years. And because I was a voracious reader, and I'm reading stories about, you know, about perfect families and watching TV with perfect families and movies and that kind of thing, and I'm wondering why I can't have that. And I'm blaming her because we don't have that. And so the resentment would - I'd have to swallow it with her. But one way I could redirect it is by taking it out on the men that she may have been dating.
MOSLEY: How do you think that uncertainty of who you would see from day to day affected you?
HILL: I think it made me filled with anxiety. I think it made me learn to just really stay inward. While I certainly didn't have any trouble making friends, I struggled and still struggle with being vulnerable and letting people know how I feel because I felt like in those situations that I didn't really have a lot of agency, that I had to just try to make the best of whatever came my way. So whatever mood my mother was in, you know, when I got home from school or something, or when she picked me up, I just had to figure out a way to navigate around whatever that was. There was no room for me to say, what's wrong or why are you acting like this or what's the problem? There was no two-way conversation. It was, this is what it is. I have to accept it and learn how to live my life around it.
MOSLEY: You know, I've been processing recently the impacts of the war on drugs and thinking about how we really are the drug war generation. I mean, we had a front row seat to it. And in many ways, myself included, I actually bought into vilifying the addicts around me and putting them into categories like high functioning versus those who were visibly strung out. Did you make that distinction as a child? And now, knowing the totality of your mother's story, how do you see it now?
HILL: Well, I do see it differently, like, now having a deeper understanding, a broader understanding, much like you just alluded to, of the concentrated efforts to villainize addicts. I mean, we - you know, the fact is, you know, we grew up in a time where the recourse and the corrective action was sending people who were crack users to jail and for a very long time. You know, it's a very distinct difference. Our response then to the drug epidemic versus the response now to the opioid crisis, completely different. And because drug use was so criminalized, that you did tend to see addicts that way and dehumanize them. I mean, that was a regular part of our culture and even the way that we saw the drug trade, because, you know, knowing, you know, in terms of drug dealers, because knowing now what we know about, you know, how drugs infected inner-city communities, you know, I have a much different perspective on what was happening in my community that I didn't understand at that time.
So, you know, I always - I think the empathy that I have for both my mother and father, that was something that I had to grow into. And it happened just by asking them questions and obviously, my worldview expanding. But, you know, as a kid, you know, your selfish tendencies are pretty pronounced. And what you care about is your immediate world, what you get to do and what you don't get to do, as opposed to when you become an adult or - and you've got some lived experience, and you understand that the situation is so much more complicated.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with sports journalist, writer and cultural commentator Jemele Hill. She's written a new memoir about her life and career called "Uphill." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "PROCEED IV (A.J. SHINE MIX)")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today I'm talking with Jemele Hill. She's written a new memoir about her life and career called "Uphill."
There are several small moments that make up your trajectory towards journalism. And I want to get to some of the highlights. But I have this theory specifically around Detroit in the late '80s and '90s. There was this one thing that unified all of the city, and that was the Pistons and the Tigers. It had such a tremendous hold on our psyche during that time and also just like this unifying spirit. Would you agree?
HILL: Oh, I would definitely agree. I mean, even if you go back before I was born, the Tigers - they won their first World Series in 1968. Well, the riots were in 1967. And one of the things that helped to bring a very segregated city together was their - was them winning a world championship. That's not to say that it made any of the racial issues and racial strife go away, but it is to say that it allowed Detroiters of whatever race to feel a unified pride in the city.
And it's actually one of the reasons I was drawn to sports. You know, we live in a very segregated society, and there are very few things that we do together. Sports is one of them. Sports is what will put somebody who's a millionaire in the room with somebody who's working class or, you know, works in manufacturing or different races and ethnicities, cultures, background, neighborhoods, socioeconomic status. It - all of that doesn't matter when you have a championship on the line, you know, and the Pistons are playing in the finals. None of that matters. OK?
So that is the beauty to me of why sports is a great mechanism and device to use to have conversations about race, about gender, about queerness, because sports makes people - because they like to see athletic achievement, because they're tied to their favorite teams and players, they make them see issues differently if that person is connected to something that you love and you like to be entertained by. I'm not saying that it's a perfect equation, but what I am saying is that it puts sports in a particular leadership position.
MOSLEY: You have varied experiences as a sports journalist - out in the field, in the studio. What did you have to do to establish yourself as a sports journalist with male athletes? Was getting in the locker room to do interviews ever a problem for you?
HILL: No, access to the locker room was never an issue for me. And that's because, thankfully, I was on the shoulders of other women who had come maybe just like half a generation before who had fought the access issue. Now, of course, when you're in a locker room, you're very aware that you're either the only woman in there, you might be the - in my case, you might be the only Black person in there. And there's an immediate stereotype that you lack the knowledge that maybe some of the other guys cover, even though the majority of men who cover sports never played a professional sport. Some of them barely play sports at all. But their acumen is not questioned in the same way. I mean, I don't know. There's some people who still think that your sports knowledge is directly tied to your genitalia. But at any rate, I think what was helpful for me is that, you know, I was always prepared. And even when I didn't know something, I wasn't afraid to ask.
The pushback that I may have felt that you feel the most is from fans - you know, fans that will tell you, go write for Cosmo. I mean, on any given day, I would be told to either go write for Cosmo or go back to Africa - one of the two. And so from fans, it's really - it can be very nasty. And within our circles in the business from an industry standpoint, you know, much like a lot of Black people face, period, in whatever traditional predominately white space that they're in, you're up against a perception that you're only there as a diversity hire. Even though when I was a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel, I was the only Black female sports columnist in North America at a daily newspaper. I didn't just say America - North America, one out of 305. So if, as a white colleague told me when I was a college beat writer, that it was easier for me to get a job because I was a Black woman, if that were really the case, why am I the only Black female sports columnist in the country at a daily newspaper? One of those two things - that math ain't mathing (ph), as they say.
HILL: OK? So it's not mathing, all right? Because you can't tell me as a white dude, it's hard for you to find a job when 90% of sports media jobs go to white men. So you're up against that among your colleagues and your peers. And as I mentioned with the fans - the athletes and the coaches were the easiest part of my job.
MOSLEY: You and I were both part of the Detroit Free Press apprenticeship program. I was one year under you. And in your book, you name our mutual mentors - Rachel Jones, Louise Reid Ritchie, Greg Huskisson. And also in my year there was Robin Givhan, who's a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post fashion editor. Jemele, do you ever trip on the fact that they were actually younger than we are now when they were mentoring us?
HILL: I know, isn't it - that's wild. Yeah. Because, like, I think Rachel was in her early 30s, maybe, when she was mentoring me. And, yeah, and that - and it's just amazing how that program proved that, you know, you plant seeds, and, man, you'd be surprised at how life-changing that could be. You know, there were a lot of people who were part of our program who may not have followed journalism, but they followed something. It put them on a path, a purpose, regardless of how that purpose, you know, may have manifested itself. It didn't necessarily have to manifest itself in journalism. And, you know, somebody like Dr. Ritchie, who was head of that program - Dr. Louise Ritchie, who - she went on, I think, later to run FAMU's journalism program. And...
MOSLEY: Florida A&M, yup.
HILL: Yeah, yup, Florida A&M. And so Dr. Ritchie was a drill sergeant. I mean, she was on us all the time about our resumes and getting clips and presenting well and knowing how to interview and, you know, all these things that young people definitely need to learn. But of course, when you're young, you just think she being a pain in the ass. So - but the apprenticeship program in Detroit definitely changed the course of my life.
MOSLEY: Same. We were paid $10 an hour. We were able to have...
HILL: Which was a lot.
MOSLEY: ...Clips in the newspaper and the magazine.
HILL: Which was a lot then.
MOSLEY: I know. It was a big deal.
HILL: Right? Yeah, definitely. I mean, did I tell - and to be able to be published. I still have my very first piece that was published in the Free Press. Because I got a piece published at the end of our apprenticeship, and I still have it.
MOSLEY: What was that first piece that you had printed?
HILL: So it was about - he may have been the only white student at my high school. I think he was the only one 'cause I don't remember any other white people but him. But because he was, I mean, he was bullied and harassed a lot. And basically, this column was about how seeing that and understanding the racial dynamic of why even despite, historically, what we all know has happened to Black people and even for - what? - Black Detroiters in particular were experiencing - you know, I just wrote about how kind of awful it was to see this kid get tormented every day, and mostly because he was white and he was the only white kid there in this massive school.
And so, you know, I wrote about how, like, retaliation really can't be a part of the game plan 'cause it felt like he was being retaliated against for something that he had no control over and didn't even do. It's just, you're here. You're white. You're not like us. We just going to take out every possible frustration on you. And so that was my first piece in the Detroit Free Press Sunday magazine.
MOSLEY: You know, Jemele, the dogged determination that you have, it makes me think of a conversation I had with #MeToo founder Tarana Burke around this time last year about her memoir. And she talked about how perfectionism and overachievement is often a trauma response. It's that John Henry-ism, that strategy for coping with prolonged exposure to stress by basically striving to be the best. But at some point, there's a cost. And that was a major breakthrough for me. What about for you?
HILL: Yeah, I think Tarana's - she's absolutely right. Because as I was writing this memoir, I came across some information about how the children of addicts - how they respond to being raised to navigate addiction. And one of the trauma responses is control. And it was one of the things I learned in therapy that I did not know 'cause I would have never put myself in this category, is that I'm a control freak. And part of the reason why I put in the memoir that sentence about how a lot of people and a lot of things have let me down but my career never has, is because to me, my career wasn't really a risk. It's - I knew if I poured in X amount, an expected result was going to happen.
And one of the things I loved about being in journalism was that I could control what was happening. Not necessarily the stories I was being assigned or anything like that, but I knew after I did that apprenticeship program, OK, well, if I apply for internships, if I get clips, then that will lead me to the next internship. If I get enough internships when I'm in college, when I come out of college, I can maybe wind up at a midsized daily or, you know, not wind up at - not a small - a newspaper. So that's what I did. I had five internships in college and then went to work at The News & Observer, which was a very highly regarded midsized daily. OK, if I cover general assignment sports for two years, then that will put me in line to be a beat reporter. OK. And then, once I'm a beat reporter, maybe I can try to be at Sports Illustrated. I had a whole plan in my mind because that was a source of comfort to me, because I was able to control that.
What I was really trying to go after was stability because I didn't feel stable as a child. And so the stability became very important to me as an adult. And so I've always put myself, professionally, in very stable situations, things that I could control. I mean, when we're talking about racism, we hear it all the time. I think there is very much so a philosophy that's very prevalent that we can achieve our way up out of racism. And that's just not the case. And while, you know, that's not to denigrate what achievements mean, but the entire idea that if we reach some level, some magical level of achievement, then we won't have to face racism anymore. And that's not the way it works. And so I very much buy into the fact that a lot of the energy I have poured into my career - and, yes, maybe you could certainly debate or at least surface the idea that I did that at the expense of other things, hence that cost. But a lot of it was just in response to the fact that I needed to feel safe in something, and my career was the best place to do that.
MOSLEY: Thank you for this memoir, Jemele. You're representing and illuminating a very specific experience, a Black girl from the west side of Detroit. I mean, who else has told the world about the streets we inhabited and the humanity of our parents' experiences in this way? I just want to thank you so much.
HILL: Well, thank you for having me. This has been just such an enjoyable conversation and made even better by somebody who has very shared and relatable experience.
DAVIES: Jemele Hill's new memoir is called "Uphill." She spoke to FRESH AIR guest contributor Tonya Mosley. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews "Cabinet Of Curiosities," a new Netflix horror anthology series created by Guillermo del Toro. This is FRESH AIR.
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