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Q&A: Jemele Hill's career has taken her to ESPN and the White House. It all started in Raleigh.

Jemele Hill's memoir titled "Uphill", with her hands crossed under her chin.
Courtesy Macmillan Publishers
In her new memoir, Jemele Hill talks about her time at ESPN, the journey that got her there, and her childhood in Michigan.

The city was young. There was far less snow than in Michigan. And she was going to work for a newspaper that had just won a Pulitzer Prize.

That, more or less, is what Jemele Hill knew about Raleigh when she and her mother loaded up her grandmother’s Buick Skylark and drove to the Triangle after graduating from Michigan State. Hill moved to the South to take an internship working as a sports reporter at The News & Observer. That eventually turned into a full-time job, and while she didn’t stay in the area for long, that gig helped set the tone for a career that brought her to ESPN, first as a columnist, and eventually as a host of SportsCenter.

Hill’s persistence in bringing Black culture into her work played a pivotal role in how the Worldwide Leader in Sports reimagined its coverage. Despite resistance from within, it’s an attribute that earned her the admiration of one U.S. President — Barack Obama — and the opposite from another — Donald Trump.

In her recently published memoir Uphill, Hill talks about growing up in Michigan, being the daughter of adults battling addiction, and the ongoing fight to break down barriers as a Black woman in sports and journalism. She talks about the days that followed after she published a series of tweets calling Donald Trump a “white supremacist,” and the inner workings of ESPN that led to her co-hosting ESPN’s crown jewel, SportsCenter.

Jemele Hill, writer for The Atlantic and podcast host.
Courtesy Macmillan Publishing
Jemele Hill, writer for The Atlantic and podcast host.

In a recent interview with WUNC's Josh Sullivan, she talked about her first stop in the professional world, and how that helped shape her career.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Josh Sullivan: Your first job out of Michigan State was at The News & Observer. What were the expectations you had for the city, for the state of North Carolina, and for being in the South?

Jemele Hill: I got to Raleigh in late May, I believe, of 1997. And it was right after I graduated from college. And the big reason I came to Raleigh is because one of my closest friends, Andrew Guy Jr., was a reporter in Raleigh. He had graduated the year before me, and he had started as an intern, and then they hired him. And he said "Hey, this is a really great newspaper. A lot of wonderful writers here, a lot of wonderful writers who are young, too."

They had more than a handful of writers who were in their mid- to late-20s, who were sort of somewhat recent college grads, and they had to kind of form their own tribe. And they were winning all these awards, and Raleigh was fresh off of winning the Pulitzer. So from a paper standpoint, it definitely checked all the boxes, it was a midsized daily, which meant I didn't have to follow a familiar path that a lot of journalists have to when they get out of college in print journalism. That is, where they wind up working for a low-circulation daily newspaper in a small town and you just kind of have to grit your teeth and dig in and learn how to be better every day. I didn't have to really worry about that. It was, you know, obviously the biggest paper in Raleigh. It was a very thriving city. They had a lot of young people who were there because it was surrounded by colleges. So it was a real hotbed for people who are in their 20s.

And I liked the paper. I liked the direction they were going. I liked how they develop young writers and they were one of the few places that was hiring interns. So I was sold on the opportunity. The city — I didn't really know what to expect. I knew I probably wouldn't have to deal with the level of snow that [I] had been dealing with in Michigan, so that was a big selling point. And you know, I had never lived in the South before. And so this was going to provide what I thought to be like a really wonderful opportunity to explore a different region in the country. Me and my mom, in my grandmother's old Buick Skylark, we drove down to Raleigh.

Usually 20-year-olds, they don’t just come out, and just end up at a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper, a paper who actually wants to develop them and isn't just going to hand them the grunt work and kind of tell them to stay out of the way and be seen and not heard. [The News & Observer] was not that way. They really believed in young writers and in development. So I'm very thankful to have gotten that start in my career, because it helped me think about writing in different ways than I think I would have, had I started somewhere else.

You mentioned in your book the feature you wrote about the young runner, who was the first woman student-athlete at The Citadel. Can you go into that story a little bit more? 

The story of Mandy Garcia — she was The Citadel’s first female athlete, and this was coming off a bit of the heels of Shannon Faulkner trying to be the first woman at The Citadel. So there was always this kind of looming conversation about whether or not women had a place and a role at The Citadel. There was a lot of people who were very resistant to this idea of women being there. And it became this huge culture war/gender war, if you will.

Mandy was different. She flew completely under the radar. And I think I came across the story, because I feel like it was somebody from her hometown, who sent me an email and let me know about her.

So I made contact with her and her family and went down to Fayetteville to spend some time with her. And then we got the idea that I should go to South Carolina to see her go through this process when she was just starting. And that's what we did. Me and a photographer went down there, and they put them and they put her through a process that they put through all Knobs [The Citadel’s equivalent of freshmen].

It is a very grueling obstacle course, essentially. And they do it for several hours, you know, it's part of a whole long ritual of a day. And the entire point of it is to test your mental and physical abilities — [mostly] your mental. I think they want to see what will break you, and if you will break. What inside was going to keep you going at times when you probably are doing everything to convince yourself not to go through this?

And so I just got a first-person view of like, a lot of perseverance and strength and resiliency. So I wrote about this. And it was maybe my favorite story that I've ever done, just because I always tend to think about those stories I've done about people that you don't read about every day. They're not celebrities. And so I was really impressed with Mandy and she got through it and everything. And so it was a wonderful story to write. And I wound up winning first place in the sports feature writing category for the [North Carolina] Press Association.

Were there any other stories that really stood out to you aside from that? Stories that you've never been able to do since then or you hadn't been able to do before?

Another story I did was about the North Carolina women's basketball team. You know, the thing about The News & Observer is that they had a real dedication to long-form writing. And they wanted me to focus on doing long-form writing for women's sports. And that's because the women's sports in the area were so good. You know, this was at a time where all three women's basketball teams [Duke, UNC, and NC State]were ranked . The North Carolina women's soccer team had won 14 straight national championships, you had a burgeoning track star by the name of Marion Jones, who was just starting to cut her teeth and really make a name for herself. UNC was just a couple of years removed from winning a national championship at a time where Tennessee was the most dominant program in the country. So there's all these things happening with women's sports. And they really wanted to tap into that.

So... during the ACC tournament weekend... I said, "Hey, why don't you guys let me just follow you this entire weekend? I don't want to follow you in terms of saying if you win or lose, I want to be in the team meetings. I want to be at team dinners. I want to really embed myself in what you're doing this weekend, and what it's like to be a top-five team at a conference tournament that you're expected to win, when you have visions for a national championship. And they said yes, and I hung around and I wrote a humongous story. This story had to be good 80 inches, like it was a massive spread, with photos and all this detail about what this experience was like for them, you know, focusing on individual players who were standouts and their stories. So it was quite a massive undertaking. And I've never done a story like that again. The deadline for it was crazy, because I had to turn that story around very fast. And to write that amount and turn it around fast and get the positive and warm reception that it got was really something that I was very proud of myself for doing that story.

Is there anything about the book that you want people to know?

The other thing I would say is that I think because of maybe how some people know me — either through ESPN or just being a public figure or as a journalist — you know, that's a sliver of my story. There's so much more to it. The book, it touches on a lot of very difficult topics that I had to deal with in my life: addiction, sexual abuse, a lot of other things. And so I think there's a relatability that's there, and whoever is in your life, I think they would be easily able to relate to one if not multiple things that are in this book.

Josh Sullivan is a social media producer with WUNC’s digital news team.
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