Q&A: With The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington

Jesse Washington is a senior writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, an ESPN site that delivers articles that cover the intersection of race, sports, and politics. He gives dudes the bizness on the court, and gives readers a defining voice to read across multiple platforms. I caught up with Jesse to talk about his inspiration for writing, the responsibilities that he holds as a black writer, and his new book I Came as a Shadow, an autobiography that he co-authored with legendary Georgetown head basketball coach John Thompson.

Dalton Allison: Where did you find your love for writing?

Jesse Washington: It came from reading. I think that any writer is going to be a big reader. As a kid, I always liked to read a lot, and also, we didn’t have a TV in the house growing up. For two reasons: number one, we were poor. And number two, although my parents could have scraped something together, they chose not to.

DA: That must have been impactful. How did that influence your ability to write, and your creative flow?

JW: I just think that reading, reading different types of material, journalism, fiction, non-fiction, articles, tweets, reading widely is the best thing you could do for your writing. You internalize it, you start to figure out what works and what doesn’t, what sounds good and what doesn’t, and you can develop your own style out of it. Just being a reader from an early age and having a love for reading has just had the biggest influence on me becoming a writer, and me becoming a better and better writer. And I still have a ways to go, I feel like I will become a better writer as I go on in my career, and I’ve been doing this for thirty years.

Jesse Washington has covered a multitude of stories, from the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington to profiles of athletes like Antonio Brown. Credit: REDEF

DA: And speaking of style, I feel like you have one of the more defined styles because you manage to intersect so many aspects of American culture into your writing, whether it is about sports or about some of the movements that are happening in the United States. What inspired you to intertwine everything together?

JW: The biggest thing is.. I aspire for the work I do professionally to be useful. Make a difference, and not just be pure entertainment. I enjoy writing things for pure entertainment sometimes, just about basketball or music or things like that. But as I got older, I really wanted to do things that could help, you know? I sort of feel like we all have an obligation to in our work do something that is helpful to other people. So I felt that for me to just And again, I enjoy sports. I like writing articles that profile an athlete or what’s going to happen in a game, or something like that. But I also need to do more than that. And that’s what inspired me to look for opportunities to do that in my journalism. Then you know, I’m a black man in the United States, so I’m passionate about things that effect our country in that respect. I’m one of the privileged people by any measure in this country in terms of education and financial opportunity. I’m very privileged for anybody, and I’m extraordinarily privileged for a black person. So I feel a real obligation, a responsibility to try to help people who are underprivileged. Black people are proportionally underprivileged, and I remember what it was like to be underprivileged because that was me growing up. Those are the things that inform my work.

DA: That feeling of responsibility must be pretty big. How do you use that responsibility in the back of your mind, or even the forefront of your mind, and how do you translate that from your head to the pen?

JW: Just allow yourself to feel, and it will get into the work. If you really care about something in your life, then people will know. They’ll know by the way you act, the choices you make, the things that you say. Most of journalism begins with a series of choices. What am I going to write about? Who am I going to interview? What facts am I going to present first in this article? So the way that my passion, my feelings for others comes through in the work.. are all choices. It all starts with caring, and allowing yourself to feel. And there’s this thing in journalism about objectivity, but I think that it’s most important to be fair. Don’t be afraid of our feelings or our opinions, but honestly engage or consider opinions that are different than yours. I think that it’s imperative for us to seek those out and challenge our own convictions. Now I’ve gotten to a place after so many years in the business that I’m allowed to write my opinion in certain stories. So I am not objective, but I am always fair.

DA: That’s very impactful. And speaking of impactful, you were able to work with John Thompson, probably one of the most impactful coaches, and black men in sports. How did the idea for the book come about, and how were you able to become a co-author on the book?

JW: He chose to write it, it had nothing to do with me. I think he was in part convinced by his children to take that step. He also wanted to define himself because he had been so inaccurately defined his entire career. He was looking for a writer and my name got thrown into the hat, and I am glad that he chose me.

DA: What was the process like of meeting with and speaking with him, and hearing all of the stories of his life? It was certainly more of a life than most people will get to life, for better or for worse.

JW: It really was, it was an incredible life. The process was that we’d meet several times per week on Georgetown’s campus. And I knew from the beginning that I had to come prepared. I couldn’t just sit there and say “Alight coach, what do you want to talk about?” But I came prepared with questions, topics, incidents, and experiences that I had read about elsewhere, and then I’d get his perspective on them. Coach came to this whole process with a set of beliefs and philosophies and values that he wanted to impart. So my job was to figure out a way to deliver his message, his over-arching messages in the context of his life story.

DA: Did he impart any message to you that particularly stands out or is relevant to the world today?

JW: Yes, I got a lot out of them. I mean, I got to spend two years talking to who your correctly identified as one of the most impactful and brilliant thinkers about education, about race, about America, that we’ve ever seen. My biggest takeaway was that I slightly adjusted the way that I think about certain opportunities that I have. I changed my vocabulary and how I talk about these opportunities because for the most part, I worked for them and I earned them. Coach had a phrase in the book that really hit me in the heart. He said “I am not going to be apologetic or grateful for the things that God intended for me to have. People want to give you what you deserve and act like they’ve done you a favor.” So I appreciate these opportunities, and that’s a word I use now more often. Appreciate. I appreciate the opportunities and what you’ve done in giving me what I’ve earned. That was one of the ways he effected my own thinking.

Credit: Porter Binks, USA Today

DA: It was a great time for the story to come out because there’s such a miseducation on the Black Lives Matter movement and why it’s relevant to not only black people in America, but everyone in America. Do you think that there’s a message in the book that everyone needs to hear, especially in the context of when the book came out?

JW: I do. I think that history in the context of what he went through makes clear why people are so urgent in demanding their freedoms to this day. I think that he does a great job of saying “Look, this is what I lived through, but we’re still dealing with a lot of inequalities.” And when you see what he lived through, then what people are demanding right now makes more sense. He said something very important in his book. He said “Based on my experiences, when I encounter certain situations or certain meet people, I’m going to think that you might be prejudice. I’m going to think there might be racism going on. I could be wrong, hopefully I am wrong. But don’t blame me for thinking that based on everything that I’ve experienced. Of course I am going to think that. I’ll give you the opportunity to be a good person. But of course I am going to feel that way, because look at what we have been through.” If more people applied that to the Black Lives Matter movement right now, I think we’d be further along.

DA: Thank you so much for your time today Mr. Washington, I really appreciate it.

JW: Coach would get a kick out of you going to Seton Hall, and he would say “Yeah, well, some people just don’t like to win.”

As it turns out, Jesse only needs a phone to give dudes the bizness.

Credit: MacMillan Publishers