Jamil Smith spent his days at Shaker Heights High School as a wrestler, track athlete, MAC Scholar and editor at The Shakerite. Today, the 1993 SHHS grad lives in Los Angeles and works as a freelance journalist, writing commentary on politics, identity and race for the Huffington Post and for the Los Angeles Times. And just last week, his story “The Revolutionary Story of Black Panther” earned the coveted cover of Time magazine. He returned to his alma mater on Friday, February 23—through the generosity of the Shaker Schools Foundation—to speak to a large group of students during a morning assembly and then returned in the afternoon to meet with MAC Scholars and MAC Sister Scholars.
“Everything here set me up for success going forward. This school provides you with a base. It provides you with one of the best templates for learning that you can ever ask for,” he told the MAC Scholars and Sister Scholars in the afternoon. “You have a place here that cares about educating you, that cares about your success and your welfare. Those things do make an impact later on.”
Mr. Smith left Shaker for the University of Pennsylvania, then spent his early career working at a talent agency before building a resume at CNN, HBO Sports, NFL Films, the Rachel Maddow Show, the Melissa Harris-Perry Show and the New Republic. He also covered the 2016 presidential campaign for MTV News. “I’m 42 and I feel like I’m finally doing what I was called to do,” he told the audience. “You can find a lot of things that fulfill you during your career. But just find your passions and explore all of them. It’s never too late to do what you want to do.”
Read on for excerpts from his Q&A with MAC Scholars and Sister Scholars.
How can we get more African American males to write with more vulnerability?
There are a lot of unfortunate stereotypes that weigh African American men down. We don’t talk about our feelings and we don’t express ourselves. I think we need to teach young men to look to men who are expressing themselves and teach that vulnerability is not a weakness: it’s a natural human state.
What was it like to work with Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Perry?
Working with her was like working on the doctorate level of cable news. She’s extraordinary, and she’s hard to keep up with. But she’s fair and she instills in everyone who works with her this maxim that you should try to increase the amount of useful information in the world.
Melissa Harris Perry is a cultural scholar and commentator. Working on her show was an education on how to start a show from scratch and how to think about representing issues in the news that aren’t getting a lot of play. We worked really hard to bring a level of representation to underserved populations.
How much did the information you learned at Shaker Heights High School help you in the real world?
Here in Shaker, you learn how to think and how to process information. And that’s an essential skill. No matter what you do, you have to be able to process information and think critically. This place provided me with role models like Mrs. McGovern, Mr. Mack, and Mrs. Blattner. Shaker holds a special place in my heart because if I didn’t make the mistakes that I didn’t make here, I would have made them somewhere else. And not all high schools are like this. I was just recently at a school in Chicago and they don’t have a student newspaper—there are just so many things they don’t have that we have here. My advice to you is to make use of the time and the people you meet here.
What did you do at NFL films?
One of my last projects at NFL films was to work on a Cleveland Browns history DVD in 2009. They assigned me the timeline that was my childhood—from 1980 to 1996. My job was to produce something that was going to live in perpetuity. For personal reasons, that meant a lot to me. Granted, it was painful to revisit a lot of not-so-good memories like the Fumble and the Drive, but I had to depict those memories in an honest way. It mean a lot to put my name on that. And it also meant a lot to my dad.
Of those you have interviewed, who had the most impact on you?
I interviewed a jazz musician named Terence Blanchard and he talked a lot about Hurricane Katrina and the effect it had. His mother’s house was so badly damaged that she couldn’t return to it for 10 years. The scars are still in that neighborhood. I went to New Orleans to talk to him so many times. I remember standing outside his childhood home with him and he was telling me of everything that happened in that house when he was a kid. It’s times like that when you realize that this is real life for people. It’s real and it’s personal.
I also interviewed Tamir Rice’s grandmother. I barely made it through that interview. That case hit me in a particular way. It was hard.
What’s your dream job?
My dream job is to be in a space where I can cover the topics that matter to me and have the freedom to do it.