Jemele Hill Discusses Her Career, Controversies, and Her Memoir

The Detroit native talks about her rise to fame via ESPN, her rise to even greater fame via criticizing a president, and her new book.
Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

Journalist Jemele Hill grew up in Detroit loving comic books, video games, early-’90s hip-hop, and storytelling. Before bathing in the bright lights at ESPN as an anchor, Hill spent the earlier years of her career covering sports for the Detroit Free Press, earning a front-row seat to global juggernauts like the 2004 Olympics in Greece and other happenings a little closer to home. She left ESPN in 2018 following a much-buzzed-about Twitter beef with then-President Donald Trump.

Today, she’s a contributing writer at The Atlantic and hosts a podcast on Spotify, Jemele Hill Is Unbothered. In October 2022, she released an autobiography titled Uphill: A Memoir. In the book, Hill boldly takes on generational trauma and chronicles a career during which she’s been unapologetically herself — come what may.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Your memoir, Uphill , came out in October. The age of 46 feels young to write one’s life story — tell me why now felt like the time.

I would agree with you. … A memoir feels like something you do when you’re done and you feel like you have nothing left to do. And I certainly didn’t feel that way. It materialized because there was a lot of interest in the publishing world, and my approach, once I decided to write the memoir, was, “Well, if I’m going to do this, then I’ve got to do this all the way.” I don’t believe in doing anything half-assed, so I certainly wasn’t going to cheat myself out of telling my story in the most transparent and honest and raw way possible.

Early on in Uphill, you write about wanting to create “generational liberty.” What does that look like?

Just thinking about my own family lineage, there were a lot of adults in my family who dealt with their own personal demons, be it addiction, abuse, all these traumas. And they were constantly living lives that were either in response to the trauma or because they hadn’t healed the trauma. What liberty looks like for me is being in a healed space. A lot of people in my family didn’t know how to get that healing, and I think they also didn’t feel like they deserved that healing. It just looks like believing you deserve happy relationships and love and good friendships and experiences and those sorts of things. And it’s not conditional to me. You deserve these things because you’re a human being, and you deserve to live your happiest life.

You write a lot about growing up in Detroit and those lessons your family relationships taught you. Did the city itself teach you anything?

Oh, the city taught me so much. Detroit is a very resilient place. It’s had to have a layer of toughness with all the things that have happened over the last 60-70 years, and really since its inception. But the resilience you learn in Detroit is something that’s almost untouchable elsewhere. In Detroit, I learned how to fight for myself. I was very rooted and baked into my identity in Detroit. It taught me a sense of self. And, you know, it’s a city of hustlers — everybody knows this. One job is like no job in Detroit. We invented grind culture and didn’t realize we invented grind culture. So my work ethic, toughness, and even the chip that I carry on my shoulder are all things that just became embedded in my DNA from growing up in the city.

Did the “Donald Trump is a white supremacist” tweet and subsequent controversy play a role in your decision to start a podcast? Was there a desire to better control the narrative?

It actually didn’t. Wanting to do my own podcast had everything to do with the fact that I missed interviewing. I missed sitting down and talking to people, and the podcast format allows you to have much more intimate conversations than a 10-minute interview or even TV, where you might have a four-minute segment. I wanted a platform where I could allow these conversations to breathe and with people who I found interesting, who had amazing stories, and who wanted to share their experiences and were willing to open up and be vulnerable. So, the podcast, even though it serves a purpose in the larger media space, was built from a selfish place. I missed what is a core function of journalism.

Your Unbothered podcast recently broke the 200-episode mark. Congratulations. For people who haven’t listened, give us your elevator pitch.

I would say that it’s Inside the Actors Studio but just not always with actors. When I sit down with people, I’ve done an extensive amount of research. And the challenge, of course, especially when you’re dealing with newsmakers, is that you’re trying to get them
to share a part of themselves that, hopefully, they’ve never shared before. Or maybe get people to see them in a different light from the persona they’re known for.

Do you think podcasts are the future of broadcast journalism?

I don’t know about that. The thing about broadcast journalism is that the method is always changing. So today, it’s podcasts. Tomorrow, I don’t know. We could be beaming something up to a spaceship. … But what doesn’t change, to me, is just the general craft. The core tenets of journalism will never change. The “who, what, when, why, where, how” never will change.

You wrote in Uphill that ESPN didn’t want you making statements during the Trump whirlwind. If you could have spoken, what would you have said?

Probably something that would have wound up putting me in even deeper water, and so maybe it was a good thing. No, I mean, I would have explained that those are my own views and opinions and they really have nothing to do with the network. That entire ordeal certainly brought to the surface the conversation about where does the line between you as a citizen begin and end with you as a journalist. … There’s been this big conundrum within our profession about whether or not we’re allowed to be citizens, if you will. I think it’s very naive, especially in today’s political climate, for any news organization to believe that the journalists that cover the story don’t or shouldn’t have thoughts and feelings about the thing that they’re covering. For a long time, I think journalism has hidden behind objectivity, and we’ve used it as a shield and as an excuse to not do what was supposed to be the original job of the journalist, which was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. … I think journalists just strive to be fair, not objective; those are two different things.

Do you still have the same passion for sports post-ESPN?

I do. And I think how I’ve chosen to exhibit that passion has shifted because of what I feel are the critical conversations of the moment. I’m glad that I don’t really have to talk about sports from a results standpoint. I’m interested in writing about sports the way I do for The Atlantic, where I’m analyzing and commenting on the intersection of sports with culture, politics, gender, and race. The bulk of sports conversations — no matter what — they all come back to these messy intersections.

I read your recent Atlantic article on the Jerry Jones desegregation photo. You said you’d be willing to give him grace for being there back then but that you’d like to see him and the powers that be do more to fix the NFL’s race problem today. What’s the issue, and what needs to be done to remedy it?

The problem is that there’s never been a majority Black owner in the NFL. It took them 100 years for a Black man to be named team president. … There is also the ever-revolving problem of not having enough Black head coaches in the league. My issue with the NFL ownership in general is that they know exactly what the problem is, they know exactly how they can fix the problem, and they have no willingness to do this because they’re owners. They’re a group of white men that don’t like being told what to do. That’s it — it’s just pure and simple. And so they can only see Black leadership in the very narrow spectrum of them just being labor. I mean, look how long it took for Black quarterbacks to gain some level of respect, acknowledgement, and access, because there was a widely held belief that Black men were not fit for the leadership position. So this very same league has that very same problem, only apply it to head coaches.

When you come to visit, what does your perfect day in Detroit look like?

People can judge me, but my perfect day in Detroit is built solely around food. Detroit has some of the best cuisine in the country. … We have the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, we have Mexicantown, we have a strong Polish community. So, you’re able to enjoy anything on the spectrum. Every time my husband and I go back to Detroit, we literally have a list. Nobody makes Chinese food the way it’s made in Detroit. Nobody! I can’t get that anywhere. We definitely hit Buddy’s Pizza. And I’m definitely going to go to Sweetwater Tavern to get some wings or whatever. It’s home, but the food really, really makes me feel at home.

This story is part of the March 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition