Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 27, 2022

Book Review: Jemele Hill’s Long Climb

If time has not exactly passed Andy Warhol’s future by, it has at the very least redefined it.  It was the great American pop artist who in 1968 foresaw the day when “everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.”  Although there is evidence to suggest he borrowed the phrase, it quickly and permanently became associated with Warhol.  Yet more than half a century later, now that Warhol’s future has arrived, much of popular culture is no longer measured by such conventional concepts as minutes.  So while fame – or an approximation thereof – often does seem within reach of anyone, the half-life of its radiation is as likely to be counted in tweets as in time.

Even the hyper-imaginative Warhol did not foresee the existence of Twitter, or any of the various other social media mediums that, depending on one’s view, either grace or despoil our cultural landscape.  But Jemele Hill knows what it’s like to be thrust into the public eye 140 characters at a time.  In September 2017, Hill, who after a decade at ESPN had recently taken over the six o’clock edition of SportsCenter along with co-host Michael Smith, tweeted criticism of Kid Rock, who she saw as openly pandering to racists by choosing to often perform with the Confederate flag on stage.  A day later she happened to scroll through the replies to her post and noted one that strongly defended then-President Trump. 

It had been less than a month since Trump had defended the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Hill’s visceral reaction to his declaration that the marchers included “some very fine people” and his false accusation that they had been attacked by counter-protestors from “the alt-left” was fresh in her mind.  In a string of twelve tweets Hill, in her own words, “unloaded on Trump, explaining why he was a threat to our democracy and a racist.”  But the post that was quickly pinging around the internet was the one in which she described Trump as “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.”

Her time at the leading sports network had made Hill familiar to many fans, but that level of recognition was modest compared to what followed.  Not surprisingly, in part because of the subject matter of her posts and surely in part because Hill was both Black and a woman, the reaction was both intense and extreme.  She was excoriated by some and venerated by others, the replies a mix of vile language and ugly threats interwoven with high praise and shows of support.  For its part, ESPN reprimanded Hill for violating the company’s social media policy, which prohibited employees from making political statements, but otherwise took no action.  Less than a month later however, her employer was quick to act when Hill tweeted a suggestion that fans of the Dallas Cowboys boycott the team’s sponsors to protest owner Jerry Jones’s condemnation of NFL players who were silently protesting during the national anthem, a short list that included no one on the Dallas roster.  Hill was suspended for two weeks, during which time she began to plan for life after ESPN.  Within a year, she left the network.

All that is what most fans think of when Hill’s name is mentioned.  But whether it lasts for 15 minutes or 12 tweets, the kind of fame Warhol envisioned almost never reveals the depth of an individual.  Now, Hill’s newly published memoir “Uphill” (Henry Holt and Company, 10/25/22) fills in the details of a complex and compelling life story.

It is a tale that began in Detroit, where Hill’s childhood was defined by a mother who lapsed in and out of drug dependency but who still managed to provide for her daughter’s basic needs.  But the constant challenges of existing on the economic and social edge could easily have turned Hill’s life into little more than a sad statistic.  Instead, she became both tough and independent, though at the price of developing a deep seated suspicion about the motives of almost everyone she met, a trait that Hill acknowledges she long struggled to overcome.

College at Michigan State and early forays into student journalism broadened Hill’s horizons, and natural reporting skills coupled with a lifelong love of sports led to her early jobs covering sports for local newspapers.  She eventually moved beyond Detroit, writing for the Raleigh News and Observer, and later, after returning home for a stint at the Detroit Free Press, serving as a sports columnist at the Orlando Sentinel.  It was while in Florida in 2005 that Hill learned an Associated Press survey of 305 newspapers across the country had found just one Black female sports columnist – her.

If there was justifiable pride in that distinction, there was also a clear warning about how far Hill’s chosen industry still had to go before reflecting either the fans who were its consumers or the athletes who were its subjects.  Hill found that especially true when she moved to ESPN in the autumn of 2006, a career change she was initially reluctant to make because she wasn’t interested in being on television.  While she grew more accustomed to the performative nature of her new medium, and certainly didn’t mind the much improved compensation of television reporters over those who toil in print, Hill found herself in constant battles for recognition and opportunities because of her gender and skin color, struggles she also watched being played out by production staff who happened to look like her.  Her finest work for ESPN was when she partnered with Smith on a show originally titled “His and Hers,” a talk show in which the two hosts eschewed the screaming matches that were, and remain, the staple of sports talk programs, for intelligent discussions about not just sports, but also pop culture and social issues.  With two African-American hosts, it was also a show that Hill calls “Black as hell.”

That of course would not do when the pair was tabbed for the six o’clock edition of the network’s staple, SportsCenter, and as the corporate executives sought to change Hill and Smith’s approach and style, she sensed her time at ESPN might be winding down even before she fatefully took to Twitter.

“Uphill” concludes with her departure from the sports network, but Hill has been plenty busy over the past four years.  She’s on the staff of “The Atlantic” magazine and also has a popular podcast, “Jemele Hill is Unbothered.”  The winner of the Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 2018, she has established herself as a leading voice on the intersection of sports, race, politics, and culture.  Jemele Hill’s is a voice worth listening to for far longer than 15 minutes, or even a dozen tweets.

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