Jemele Hill, UPHILL: A Memoir

Jemele Hill, UPHILL: A Memoir

Zibby speaks to Emmy award-winning ESPN SportsCenter co-anchor and Atlantic contributing writer Jemele Hill about her beautiful and radically honest new memoir Uphill. Jemele describes the childhood traumas she revisited when writing this book, like her near-fatal car accident, her parents’ drug addictions, and her mother’s sexual assaults. She also talks about her early love of books (thanks to her story-reading stepfather), shares brilliant book recommendations, and reveals the projects she is working on now (like directing Colin Kaepernick’s documentary alongside Spike Lee!?).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jemele. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your memoir, Uphill.

Jemele Hill: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. Of course, I enjoy talking about my favorite thing, which is this memoir.

Zibby: I enjoy talking about my favorite things, which is me.

Jemele: Which is me.

Zibby: I feel like it’s so fitting to come on this. Not that this show is really for moms anymore. Although, of course, there are lots of moms and non-moms and everything. The relationships between you and your mom and your grandmother are so profound and interesting and emotional. The experiences that you’ve all lived through, your relationships to each other, that was, for me, the heart of this whole story. I know things have happened in your career. You’ve become this hugely successful person, and ESPN and all this. When you went really deep into you and their experience, it was so moving and so good. Just had to say that.

Jemele: Thank you. I appreciate it. The difficulty in writing a memoir is that you’re writing, obviously, about real people. While my grandmother’s no longer living, my mother is. We still have a good relationship. You have to approach how you write about them with honesty and transparency, for sure, but also with care and delicacy and even empathy. This is not something that I had to manufacture. It’s something that I naturally felt. Whether it was them or any of the other people that I wrote about in the book, especially those relationships that are still in my life and a part of my life that I want to preserve, that’s always something that you have to weigh as you’re trying to tell your story, be candid, be honest, and bring the emotion to the pages as you felt it in that moment and as you still feel it. It’s quite a balancing act, which makes writing a memoir just wildly different than, obviously, anything I’ve ever written.

Zibby: You start with your own childhood, and you go back to a lot of the backstory with your mom and your grandmother. When you’re recounting some of the things that happened to your family and your mom when she was younger, occasionally, I was just like, oh, my gosh, no. Again? I can’t believe this. All this sexual assault your mom went through, the scene in the van, then at the liquor store, over and over, there were just so many things that happened to her. By the time we get to the end where the two of you are still together and at an event and sitting somewhere, something, I was like, oh, my god, how is she even just still sitting there? She’s gone through so much stuff. How can she just walk down the street? I know that sounds ridiculous. The misfortune, it’s just so awful, and the trauma that she went through. Then for you to be the daughter to absorb all that, that’s a lot.

Jemele: It is. Believe it or not, the reaction that you’re having right now in this moment or as you read it is the same reaction that I had as she was telling me some of this. A lot of it, I knew. I would say more than fifty percent of it, I knew, but there were parts in the book I did not know until she told me as I sort of interviewed her for this book so I could figure out how I wanted to tell this story, even knowing some of the finer details to make sure I had the accuracy right, to make sure I had time and place. Frankly, the difficulty of taking her back through the worst moments of her life, I tried to be very careful in how I did that. When I first started to begin the writing process and was talking to her and talking about our family history overall, I started with the lighter stuff first. Then I wanted to save all the harder and more difficult things for a couple conversations and not constantly go back to her and say, hey, what about the rape in Texas? What about this part and that part? I didn’t want to do that to her to retraumatize her in any way. Even in discussing that rape, I knew it happened and had known it for a long time, but there were small details that I did not know. I didn’t know how she was abducted. I didn’t know that’s exactly how it happened. Even some of the things that she dealt with following that, I did not know. It was very eye-opening for me. I had long forgiven my mother for some of the difficulties I experienced in my childhood. I have always given her a lot of grace. Learning about things that I didn’t know and the things that she survived me made me triple the amount of grace that I’d already given her. I often have the same reaction that you have, which is, I cannot believe she was able to withstand all of this and that she is still here, and not just still here, but thriving and having gone back to get her master’s and done all these things as an adult at that stage in her life that a lot of people would not have been able to accomplish given the severity of the trauma she experienced through the majority of her life.

Zibby: Then you also write about your own traumas. Even the car accident, that was terrible. Talk a little more about that. Do you think about that often? The people coming in and out of your lives and the poverty and the infested — I’m just so in awe. I know you’re not the only one. You’re just such a warrior to get through all of it. Almost dying in the hospital with this accident, oh, my gosh, you poor thing.

Jemele: Sadly, my story is relatable. That’s the sad part. That’s what’s unfortunate, is that I’m not the only person in this world, and certainly not in this country, to have parents who are recovering addicts. I’m not the only person who had an impoverished childhood and had gone through all of — the experiences themselves are unique, but the situations are kind of relatable. In terms of my car accident that I was in where I flatlined and was thrown out of this car after this freak accident, if you will, at the time, as a child, you don’t really process what’s happening. As I wrote about in the book, what I think about in the moment is what I wasn’t able to do because of it. Sports have always been a big part of my life. To be told temporarily that I could not play sports and not find a way to interact with other kids — then physically, the way I looked after this accident was obviously very detrimental. As a child, you want to fit in. You want to be with your peers. You want to feel accepted. To not really feel that because of these lingering injuries that I suffered, that was tough. That was a tough time in my life.

Later on as I grew into adulthood, that’s when you start thinking about your purpose. That’s when you start thinking about how close you were to not being here. You wonder, as I’ve always wondered, what was the reason? It doesn’t have to be a thing where I’m questioning the things that are happening in my life, but more or less looking at it from the standpoint of, there’s a reason why I’m here. I have to make sure that every day when I get up, that I’m faithful to whatever that reason is. I don’t always know what it is, but there’s clearly a reason why I’m supposed to be here. Part of my purpose, my drive, my ambition is built around always being very intentional about understanding why I am here and to make sure that with these God-given talents, this position I’ve been placed in, that I’m maximizing it at all times because there’s a reason that I’m here. Again, as I write about in the book, I very easily could have not been here. It’s something that drives you but at the same time is also very heavy to deal with.

Zibby: Of course. One thing that you did when you were younger is turn to books, which I also did, and probably many listeners. If I could just read these two paragraphs, is that okay? You said, “I had anger, resentment, fear, and longing bubbling inside me and nowhere to dump those feelings. I was too embarrassed to talk about my mother with any of my friends. I shared some things with my grandmother, but talking to her was difficult because I knew she would just use whatever I told her to badmouth my mother to her friends and other people in our family. Instead of confiding in someone from my inner circle, I turned to two trusted outsiders: Judy Blume and Margaret Simon. Judy Blume was one of my favorite authors. I read everything I could from her, Superfudge, Deenie, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and It’s Not the End of the World, but my favorite book of them all was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” At the end, you said that’s how you started writing. Tell me more about that and your lifelong love of reading and Judy Blume and all of it.

Jemele: Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, my two best friends in my head. I was a voracious reader from the beginning. As I write about in my memoir, that love was stoked. I’m sure this will be of great comfort to parents that are listening. It was stoked by the fact that my stepfather read to me on a regular basis. Yes, it does actually take root, parents. When you read to your children, it does stoke that love of reading in them. It may not seem like it, but it does. I think about those early childhood books that I loved, Curious George, Frog and Toad. I still have a copy of Frog and Toad somewhere. It’s my favorite childhood book, that entire series. That is what made me want to read. I just started reading as a young adult, continued that habit. Lost a little bit in college because when you have to read in college, it’s a totally different thing. I did not do much pleasure reading in college, I will say, but luckily, picked it back up once there was some distance between my professional life and college. I’ve always found great comfort in books. I think books change your perspective on the world. Books make you curious about the world.

It’s hard for me to even fathom where my life would be without books. It made me want to be a writer, even though I didn’t know how that process worked. I didn’t know how one becomes an author at all. It is what totally drove me to do what I’m doing now. I always saw myself as somebody who would eventually write a book. I just never thought that it would be a book about me, would be my first book. I always wanted to be a fiction writer. It wasn’t until much later in adulthood that I actually started to read nonfiction. Most of my life, I have read fiction. Now I’ve sort of made a turn, I think in part because I had to write a memoir where I’ve become hugely invested in reading a lot of nonfiction. Books were just a lifesaver for me. Certainly, it stoked my imagination. It allows you to get kind of lost in a universe, in a world that’s not your own. I know people have different ways in which they decompress. For me, that way is through books.

Zibby: Me too. Have you read anything amazing lately? I just read your book, but what did you read?

Jemele: This is also the great part, as well, about being in the profession that I’m in, being a journalist. Especially because I have to interview people, I’m constantly — I am the interviewer that if you’ve written a book, I’m going to read it. That part, I love because it allows me to read books that I may not have picked up on my own. Right now, I’m reading a book called Go Ahead in the Rain. The writer’s last name, I’m afraid to say because I know I will mispronounce it. His first name is Hanif. I’m a hip-hop fan as well. This book is about A Tribe Called Quest, one of the best rap groups in history. He wrote this book about their dynamic, their relationship. It’s really about music and sound. It’s really, really good. I’m almost done with that book. In 2022, I read a lot of amazing books. Probably, the best book I read on the fiction front was a book called Nightcrawling by Lila Mottley. Lila or Leila Mottley. This book is phenomenal. I cannot believe this young lady wrote this book at eighteen years old. She won the National Book Award. The best books are, as you’re reading it, you feel something shift inside of you. That’s what this book is. That was my best book recommendation of 2022.

Probably, the best memoir I read in 2022 — I’m not counting my own, of course — is Viola Davis’s, Finding Me. You want to talk about a woman that you will look at and say, how is she still here? Read her book. Her book is extraordinary. Better yet, my suggestion would be to listen to the audiobook. I know some people don’t love audiobooks. Sometimes there could be this divide between the book readers and the audiobook listeners. The reason the audiobook is worth it is because she does it. Viola Davis is a powerful actress. This is the best audiobook I’ve ever heard. I’m not surprised at all that she’s up for a Grammy for it because it’s just that good. That was probably the best memoir that I read in 2022. As you know from my book, I grew up poor. The level of poverty that Viola Davis grew up under is a different level. She made me feel rich by reading her book. I would say that I grew up rich by reading it. She has been through some extraordinary challenges. That woman is a walking testimony. Those would be my recommendations from my 2022 lot. We’re still early in 2023, so I still got a lot of books to get to this year that I’m very much looking forward to.

Zibby: That was a great recommendation. That has been on my list of things I need to read. Sometimes I prioritize all the ones I’m doing. I do 365 podcasts a year, so I’m like, I have to read those books. Sometimes I’m like, well, I’m not going to read it because she’s not coming on my podcast. Maybe I’ll try again to get her on. I like audiobooks in particular that are memoirs. I’m not as — maybe I shouldn’t even say this. I have a harder time following fiction on audiobook.

Jemele: That makes sense, though.

Zibby: When it’s somebody telling me their story in their words, I’m like, oh, yeah, keep it coming.

Jemele: Honestly, if you asked me my preference, I would probably say the same thing. A fiction book, I would prefer to actually read. I’m a “feel the pages” person. Unfortunately, I don’t have a library as extensive as yours in terms of space. I have to make decisions. As much as I want to physically read this book, I have to make tough choices. Then I’ll just, obviously, resort to reading it electronically. A fiction book, if it’s by somebody newsworthy, of note — I listened to Will Smith’s audiobook, which was phenomenal as well. The actors have a built-in cheat code. If you do an audiobook that an actor has done, you’re probably in for a much different audio experience than you are, say, when I did my audiobook. I kind of make the same separation that you do. I’ll do a memoir or even something nonfiction in audio, but I don’t want to listen to fiction. I want to read it.

Zibby: I thought there was maybe something wrong with me.

Jemele: No, I think you’re right.

Zibby: I just can’t follow it as much. I just can’t. I don’t know what’s wrong. Maybe that’ll be a goal. Get better. One of my favorite audiobooks, by the way — I don’t know if you’ve read Jodie Patterson’s book, A Bold World. She read that herself. She had many kids, including one who is trans. Anytime I think about that book, I think about her saying the word Penelope. She has this lower voice. Penelope, this. By the time I interviewed her, I’m like, you’re like my best friend. You don’t even know me.

Jemele: The audiobook experience for an author, especially me being a first-time author and not being an actor, it’s a little weird. It’s a little disconcerting. It probably took me a couple weeks to do mine. One, the sound of your own voice, most people don’t like it. I don’t like the sound of my own voice, but that’s all you’re hearing. It was fun to do but also nerve-racking to do because you have to sell it in a different way than the writer in me. When I was writing the book, I never even thought about the fact that I would probably have to do an audiobook. As I’m doing my audiobook, I’m also sort of mentally swearing at myself. Why did you make these sentences so long? Then there are just words that you’re so used to writing that you’re not used to saying out loud. There was probably a new collection of fifteen, twenty words that I realized I can’t really say, I don’t actually know how to say and pronounce, but I know how to write them. I can’t necessarily say them aloud. It’s a very humbling experience.

Zibby: That’s totally happened to me too. Somebody will say a word, and I’m like, oh, my gosh, is that how you say that? In my head, it was something totally different. The second half is more about your career and everything that’s happened with that and negotiating, eventually leaving ESPN, and moving on to your, not to mention, little cameo by Donald Trump. Your life is crazy. What are you going to do now? What are you doing? What are you continuing to do from before? What are you doing now? How has the book your life?

Jemele: The book has been really life-changing. It still just strikes something in me when I — I had this experience going through the airport. I went into Hudson’s Books because I think they’re the largest bookseller. Then to see my memoir sitting there, it was surreal. I was like, wow, my book is actually in a store. People can buy it at the airport. On social media, somebody just sent me a photo. They were on the subway. They saw a woman reading my book. That’s the coolest thing. They were in a subway in New York. I was like, oh, this is just so cool. It’s been different being asked more about personal things in my life as opposed to current events or social, political, or sports events because that’s what I’m primarily asked about, or have been until this time. Now being asked about me and talking about myself constantly is kind of interesting. I made that joke earlier in the podcast. Yes, it’s my favorite thing, me. It was sort of tongue in cheek. I spent weeks talking about just about myself, and I was like, wow, that’s a lot. That’s certainly been life-changing, to have this out there in the public and have people digesting it. It’s been warmly received, which, obviously, is what you want as an author. Now I’m moving to a different phase in my life in the sense of, while writing will always be central to what I do — I still write for The Atlantic. I also am moving into this phase where I’m getting into more things on the production side. I’m executive producing Colin Kaepernick’s documentary. That’s being directed by Spike Lee. We’re knee-deep in production in that. That has a significant amount of my attention. I’ve started a podcast network with Spotify. I have my own podcast on Spotify called “Jemele Hill Isn’t Bothered,” which is a weekly podcast. I do not do three hundred episodes a year. When you said three hundred episodes, I was like, oh, my god.

Zibby: 365. Every day. Every single day.

Jemele: 365, that’s incredible.

Zibby: It’s insane.

Jemele: I stand in awe of you.

Zibby: Thank you.

Jemele: You also make me feel like I’m not working hard enough.

Zibby: You’re a slacker. You’re a total slacker.

Jemele: I am totally slacking. Yes, I’m clearly not on the ball.

Zibby: I’m here to make you feel bad. That’s my job here today.

Jemele: Thank you. You’ve successfully achieved it.

Zibby: Great. It’s perfect.

Jemele: I started a podcast network at Spotify specifically that centers Black women. We launched our first two podcasts late last year in November. One is called “Sanctified,” which is about how Black women worship. The other one is called “The Black Girl Bravado,” which is a wellness podcast. Both of them are extremely funny. All of the hosts, these are some really dynamic women. I think people will enjoy them. Those are also available on Spotify. I have a few more TV and film projects coming up in this next quarter, or this quarter, I should say. It’s just ramping up the production side of my life. At least it looks like for 2023, that will be the defining bar of my life, is all these TV and documentary and film productions that I have in the works.

Zibby: It’s so cool, really fun.

Jemele: Thank you.

Zibby: I could make a bad joke. It was all uphill, but I feel like it’s downhill from here. Do people say that?

Jemele: Downhill is the follow-up memoir.

Zibby: Good, a sequel.

Jemele: The sequel is going to be called Downhill.

Zibby: We need a little plateau.

Jemele: As you know from reading the book, the first part of it is so heavy that I was like, man, the next thing I write, I got to make sure that it’s kind of joyous and uplifting. I don’t want people to think that my life is just consumed by these dark things. Even people who read it, I often tell them, I say, don’t worry, it gets lighter as you go. It gets lighter as you go.

Zibby: That’s true, but I like wallowing in the dark in stories.

Jemele: That’s sometimes how you feel like you get a sense of who people are.

Zibby: It’s so true. This was awesome. I’m sorry I made you feel bad. Ha-ha. Not kidding.

Jemele: Not kidding. Sort of.

Zibby: Sort of-ish. Anyway, it was great to connect. Good luck with all your stuff coming up. Thank you. This was really a moving read. Congratulations.

Jemele: Thank you. I appreciate you having me on. Always good to connect with another fellow avid book reader.

Zibby: I feel like you and I should interview Viola Davis together. Maybe that’s why .

Jemele: I’m in.

Zibby: You want to do that?

Jemele: I’m in. Let me know. I am a hundred percent in.

Zibby: Maybe I’ll pitch it with guest host of you.

Jemele: I’m in. We can do it.

Zibby: We’ll see if it works.

Jemele: Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Jemele Hill, UPHILL: A Memoir

UPHILL: A Memoir by Jemele Hill

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