We all know my friend Jemele Hill as a fully formed journalist, formerly of ESPN, currently of the Atlantic and host of the podcast “Jemele Hill Is Unbothered.” But we are now rolling back the game clock and meeting young Jemele growing up on the tough streets of Detroit. Her newly released book, “Uphill: A Memoir,” is an inspiring meditation on breaking the generational curse of addiction and trauma.
“Both my parents are recovering addicts,” she told me on “Renaissance Man.” “It’s just that my father got cleaner much earlier than my mother. They weren’t together. And when he was going through his struggles, he was kind of in and out. So we were a bit estranged. And my mother’s drug abuse was very much engineered and stoked by the fact that she was a sexual abuse survivor. She was molested as a child from ages 4 to 11. She suffered a violent rape when I was 5 or 6 years old. She had a failing marriage, as well, that was mixed in there. All of that really drove her to self-medicate. And for me, it was not easy to understand.”
Things only got worse when the woman who lived in the apartment next to them was murdered. Jemele’s mother, who was addicted to painkillers, spiraled and started to smoke crack. But before she did it, she showed it to Jemele.
“I never saw her smoke it, but … she wanted me to know what it looked like so that if anyone ever approached me with it, then I would know to say no. Now I know that might sound like a very bizarre and also counterproductive argument, but it obviously stayed in my mind,” she said.
Despite the hardships that can cut a childhood short, Jemele said she was fortunate in many ways. She didn’t want for basic necessities. She also had her grandmother, who “picked up the slack” when her mother was on a binge.
“I was really grateful that [my grandmother] was there in my life to be a steady force, even though her and my mother had a very complicated dynamic as well.”
Jemele had another stabilizing element: journalism. A voracious reader and sports lover, Jemele joined her high school paper. She then applied for an apprenticeship at the Detroit Free Press.
“I got into the program, and for six weeks at $10 an hour, 20 hours a week, I learned about what it takes to be a journalist, how to write a story, how to interview people, how to build a résumé. I was assigned to mentors who I’m still friends with to this day. That was such a huge turning point for me in my life.”
Obviously her upbringing helped her develop thick skin, which she needed to make it in the male-dominated world of sports.
“The athletes never gave me any trouble. I never got a sense from them that they didn’t respect me,” she said, adding that it was “fans and viewers and readers, which would be either, ‘Go back to the kitchen,’ ‘Go write for Cosmo’ or ‘Go back to Africa.’ One of those three, if not a combination.”
But she clearly knows her stuff. That helped her smartly avoid entering into an abusive relationship with my beloved Detroit Lions. She said her mother had lived in Oakland and fell in love with the 49ers, so that became her lone out-of-town team. As a kid growing up in the ’80s, she rooted for the Tigers, who won the World Series in ’84. And we all know a little squad out of Detroit called the Bad Boys.
“The Wings got a star named Steve Yzerman … I just did not have a compelling [reason] to root for the Lions. I do not root against them … for the mental well-being of my husband,” fellow Detroit native Ian Wallace.
We chopped it up on Detroit hot spots, her favorite books (“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston is one of them), her near altercation in a Miami nightclub, embracing vulnerability and her north star in journalism: Michael Wilbon.
I asked for parting advice on breaking the cycle of family trauma. “I think it’s important that we talk to our elders about their lives, like really talk to them about it. What their life was like before we came along as either their child or grandchild, nephew, niece, whatever,” she said. “What were some of the disappointments, the failures? Like, really have open conversations about the times that they lived through.”
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.