Journalist Jemele Hill Speaks Truth to Power
It is almost impossible to talk about Jemele Hill today without talking about Donald Trump. Which is the opposite of how Jemele Hill would have it, understandably. “If the lead line in my obituary is ‘She once tweeted that the president is a white supremacist,’ I will see my life as a professional disappointment,” Hill says. But it was that September 2017 tweet — so simple and direct — that brought 43-year-old Hill, a longtime writer and on-air personality at ESPN, to where she is today: a columnist for The Atlantic, host of the podcast Unbothered, and a bold and authoritative new voice at the forefront of national discussions about race, gender and other hot-button issues.
Hill is not blasé about the furor that erupted over her comments — she was called out at a press conference by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, reprimanded by ESPN and deluged with death threats — but she was well prepared for it. She’s been getting hate mail since her days as a columnist at Michigan State University. “The things people were saying back then were very similar to now,” says Hill, who once had to call campus police for protection. “The difference is just that they were writing it in letter form. One person got creative and used to put it on bathroom tissue.”
On the national stage, however, she found the experience galvanizing. “I’d always used my voice to address, relative to sports, issues of race and gender,” says Hill, who worked for decades at major newspapers from from Raleigh to Detroit to Orlando. “So discussing something with a little more meat on it was not foreign to me. But this was different because of the reach that it had. I mean, the White House responded. It was the first time it really sank in how big my platform was. And it empowered me. I was finding my voice in a new way.”
Instead of quietly tiptoeing back to sports-only missives, an emboldened Hill waded into political waters again a few weeks later. After Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatened to bench any player who took a knee during the national anthem (they are America’s Team, after all), she suggested via Twitter that fans boycott the Cowboys’ advertising partners. The network suspended her for two weeks and Hill issued another apology… but both sides knew their partnership would soon come to an end. “They never abandoned me or made me feel I wasn’t a part of the ESPN family,” Hill says. “But there was a sense that the relationship couldn’t go back to where it was, that something had been permanently disrupted.” In September 2018, Hill and ESPN parted ways.
For the woman who’d grown up knowing she was going to be a sportswriter, it could have been a devastating blow. As a little girl in Detroit, Hill nerded out on two things: sports and journalism. A self-described tomboy, she played organized softball with girls and not-organized everything else, from football to footraces, with the kids in her neighborhood. To follow her favorite teams — this was in the Eighties — there was only one place she could go: the newspaper. “My love of sports and my love of journalism coincided,” she says. “One fed the other.”
At home, where she was raised primarily by her mother and grandmother, her sports expertise was treated as “a parlor trick,” Hill says. Her mom’s male friends, amazed at the scope of her knowledge, would put her on display: “Around other men, they’d say, ‘Hey, ask her this and she’ll tell you!’” She joined the school paper in ninth grade, majored in journalism in college and snatched up every internship she could. But as she grew into adulthood Hill’s deepening understanding of sports was often greeted with skepticism. “Talking to men in social situations, or [getting] feedback from readers, it always felt like a pop quiz,” Hill says. “They challenge you on everything, not because they’re trying to have an honest and genuine debate. It’s that they’re trying to expose you as a fraud.”
In the newsroom, Hill says she didn’t have to fight especially hard to be heard, despite often being the only woman — and always being the only black woman. But the insidiousness of pervasive racism and sexism is that they can live in your bones without being thrown in your face. “The feeling I always had was that there was this assumption that the reason I was there wasn’t because I was as professionally capable as everybody else,” Hill says. “It’s just a sense you get sometimes in the room.” When one colleague said the unsayable — that it was “much easier” for Hill to get a job than a white man because she’s a black woman — she parried with an athlete’s reflexes. “I said, ‘Well there’s a whole lot more of you around here than me. So if that was really the case, why aren’t there hordes of black women in this locker room covering this team?’” Decades-long conversations about diversity have sounded an alarm for white people, especially white men, she says, “but it hasn’t changed what newsrooms look like, so, from my perspective, [those people] look pretty safe.”
Hill is inundated with vitriol in the lawless wasteland of social media, but she finds the phenomenon less disturbing than baffling. She puzzles over anyone taking “time out of their day to write somebody and tell them how much they suck.” Her concern in the face of such hostility is only for her family, who live in fear that a troll-come-to-life might physically harm her. “When you’re in the public eye, it allows people to see you inhumanely,” she says. “There’s this idea that you have to take the abuse. And when younger journalists, especially young female journalists, ask me how I handle social media, I hate myself when I have to tell them to condition themselves and develop a thick skin. Because that gives license to the people who do it. And it burdens [the targets] with the responsibility of dealing with a problem that they didn’t create.”
She explored this idea in one of her first Atlantic columns following the televised state funeral for President George H.W. Bush, which saw the Obamas shake hands with the man who’d led the birther movement against Barack, President Trump. Hill bemoaned the fact that the former first couple, and all people of color, are forced to “go high” (borrowing from the phrase Michelle coined, “when they go low, we go high”) at all times, even when they’ve been wronged. “It’s something most people of color and most women have been burdened with their whole lives, having to suppress your natural emotion to make everybody else feel comfortable,” she says. “Repeatedly having to do that takes its toll.”
To her credit, Hill practices what she preaches. In the aftermath of the her Trump comments, she selected a few lucky commenters, people who’d said something particularly vile even by the standards of the internet, and put them on blast. “I took five or six people, took a screenshot of what they sent, tagged them, and put it out there before all the people that follow me on Facebook,” Hill says. (That’s 159,000, for the record.) “This one gentleman worked for Kay Jewelers, so I made sure to tag them and say, ‘Just so you know, here’s one of your employees calling me the N-word.’ It’s amazing how quickly people start to backtrack when you do that.”
Allowing herself the perk of petty (her word) revenge is a privilege Hill relishes, but she loses no sleep over the nameless, faceless snipers firing verbal assaults at her from their phones — or even the ones with very famous names and bright orange faces. She credits the guiding forces in her life, her mother and grandmother, with giving her the gift of perspective. Her grandmother, who grew up in the Deep South, went back to school in her thirties to get her bachelor’s degree, eventually becoming a social worker. Her mother survived sexual abuse in her youth and a rape at gunpoint as an adult. She fell into addiction when Hill was a child, using drugs to cope, and the family went on and off welfare. But she sought treatment and has been in recovery for decades. Today, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in health administration.
“My mother and grandmother went through a lot, but they always had a resiliency and a toughness that I admired,” says Hill. “I like to think that pieces of their resiliency and toughness broke off into me.”
“People asked me a lot when the whole Trump thing happened how I was dealing with everything,” she continues. “I told them I was fine, and they didn’t believe me. But the reason I’m equipped for such situations, for hate mail, for other scrutiny and criticism, is because I’ve never had a bad day as a professional that could remotely compare to the worst day that my mother’s ever had. The worst thing that happened to me is the president tweeted I was a failure? Who cares? I’ve seen way worse than that.”
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