Jemele Hill despises having to give “that talk.” The one in which she sits down with an up-and-coming journalist — often a Black woman — and lectures them on the importance of having thick skin. She’ll do it, of course, because as a current staff writer for the Atlantic and the 2018 National Association of Black Journalists’ Journalist of the Year recalled in her conversation at Zellerbach Hall on Jan. 23, people who look like her need thick skin to survive in an industry like journalism. In her talk — part of Cal Performances’ 2019-2020 speaker series — Hill discussed the trajectory of her career and her path to prominence in journalism. Throughout her talk, it became clear that within her role as a politically brash cultural critic, Hill’s ability to remain strong in the face of all-too-familiar adversity has been crucial to her monumental success.
Yet, Hill made it clear that she understands that it’s fundamentally not her responsibility to change. From receiving racist hate mail for her work in the student paper at Michigan State University to drawing President Trump’s ire, she has used her trademark resilience to survive. But as someone who “speaks her mind,” Hill recalled how her career has been defined by a willingness to fight back against a broken system and a country that frowns at her.
According to Hill, her career began without the pointed social awareness for which she is so well known. Hill was just a kid from Detroit who enjoyed baseball and crafting short stories before the “crazy energy” of the newsroom sucked her in. And thanks to youthful optimism and the support of her mentors during her internship at Free Press, Hill said the ramifications of her journalistic ambitions were initially hazy.
The reality of the job, of course, was eventually not as rosy. Beyond the minimal pay, Hill discussed her introduction to the world of sports when reporting on the 1996 Cleveland Indians. With “fire-breathing editors” allegedly looking for an excuse to dismiss her and an unwelcoming, overwhelmingly male locker room, Hill lamented learning the feeling of a “spotlight following (you) everywhere you go.”
The obstacles remained constant all the way to the top. Hill offered anecdotes that ranged from darkly humorous — a producer at ESPN who allegedly refused to put her and future partner Michael Smith on television because of their supposed lack of “chemistry,” to truly horrific — having to hire private security for a Monday Night Football game because of alleged death threats from Trump supporters.
Nevertheless, Hill climbed her way to the peak of ESPN by displaying the same calm yet devastatingly witty and aware personality that had the Zellerbach Hall audience alternately in shambles and roaring with laughter Thursday night. With razor-sharp observations, Hill bounced around a variety of topics with targeted ease. Most resonant were, per usual, her sharp racial critiques. She bemoaned Barry Bonds not getting into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, saying, “if (Curt) Schilling gets in,” and mentioned the seeming hypocrisy of Colin Kaepernick’s critics — what she called the “NFL’s shameful sin.” She also brought up the way online meme culture has been seemingly weaponized to exploit racism and stupidity, noting, “I can write a 4000-word article and all it takes is one baby Yoda meme.” Even local sports teams came into focus, as Hill said the Golden State Warriors’ and Las Vegas Raiders’ moves were seemingly the product of owners apparently desperate for “corporate welfare.” Hill’s unfiltered voice may have gotten her suspended from “SportsCenter,” but it was a revelation at Zellerbach. As she put it to her potential critics, “You can cuss me out, but two times a month a paycheck is still coming.”
At one point in the evening, Hill deplored that during her 22-year career, the frustrating lack of diversity in media has not substantially improved. On multiple occasions, Hill jabbed the media for not hiring talented Black journalists, pointing out that while thousands of people attended the last meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists, there’s a seeming refusal to hire them. “They don’t want to find us,” she said. But for one night in Berkeley, Hill proved again why her voice is so essential, and why more journalists — and voices like hers — desperately need to be found.
Contact David Newman at [email protected].