Journalist and biographer Wil Haygood has made a career of elevating historic black figures with elegance and verve. This summer, he adds to an already impressive body of work with a slim, potent story that inspired Lee Daniels’ new film, The Butler: A Witness to History.
Haygood, a reporter for the Washington Post, is an Ohio native renowned for combining his flair for capturing the call-and-response cadence of African-American culture with preternatural discipline and attention to detail. He has worked as a journalist since the ’70s and along the way has written a family memoir, The Haygoods of Columbus, and a trilogy of award-winning biographies about Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sammy Davis Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson. The Powell biography, King of the Cats, was named as one of the 100 Notable Books of 1993 by the New York Times. In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. won a handful of awards, as did his first book, Two on a River, a Mark Twain–inspired trip.
He has won notable journalism and book awards, including the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Music Biography Award, the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Legacy Award and the Nonfiction Book of the Year Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.
But awards alone don't express the delight Haygood's writing evokes. Haygood's deep affection for storytelling and dogged reporting combine to offer readers history through a comprehensive lens that recreates eras, contexts and personalities. He doesn't just write about Sugar Ray Robinson the boxer; he details his life outside of the ring, including Robinson's pink Cadillac, his famous friend Miles Davis and the details of his failed career in entertainment. His singular focus on historical figures also gives space to the loves of their lives, adding a touch of romanticism even to more callous politician types like Powell Jr.
His old-school, journalistic approach and plain curiosity have spurred him to craft a varied career. He wrote his first biography as a college graduate from a poor family; he couldn't have made it through college without student loan legislation (actually, legislation that Powell's Labor and Education Committee championed).
"I woke up one day and said, 'I owe Adam Clayton Powell a debt. I'm going to write a book about him,’ ” Haygood recalls. "I started dreaming of it in 1984.” That was perhaps Haygood’s first lesson in publishing: The book wasn’t released until 1993. After his first biography, he moved on to the theatrical figures he loved. “There were all these layers to Sammy Davis Jr., and when I was growing up in the early 1960s, there were not a lot of black faces on TV. But Sammy's face you could count on. He was one of those figures that made you happy to at least see a black face….I've always been interested in figures who have had something of an edge to their lives," Haygood says.
The scope and unique depth of his work underscore an eloquence and elegance that suggest he has been committed to being a storyteller all of his life. As a reader, one can sense his admiration for the sartorial choices and the stubborn pride of each of the men in his biography trilogy. He has an innate appreciation for the cultural and personal tensions that add to the dramatic narrative arcs of some of history's most enigmatic figures.
But Haygood once had other dreams—including one of becoming an actor. After graduating from Miami University, Haygood moved to New York to pursue that dream, but he quickly learned that he wasn't cut out for it. He also worked at a food bank hotline and a social services agency and ended up becoming a "low, low-level executive" at Macy's before he got fired after about a year.
Haygood decided after some soul-searching that he would become a journalist. He found writer’s newspapers—the quickly dwindling paragons of journalistic narratives—and decided before writing to book publishers asking for a shot that he would "flow into writing books."
"I think if I'd come into the industry through journalism and journalism schools, I would have listened to everyone else tell me how to carve my journalism career," Haygood says. Instead, he took the first job offered as a copy editor in Charleston, W.Va., and through a discipline that would later allow him to produce several books while also working as a full-time reporter, he hustled his way into feature positions by writing stories on his days off. After writing his way out of West Virginia, Haygood worked at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before he was hired by the Boston Globe and, later, the Washington Post.
Haygood is currently working on a biography of Thurgood Marshall. Earlier this year, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship to help with the research and writing of the book. He has also just completed a script for the movie version of Sweet Thunder, his 2009 jazz-infused biography about Sugar Ray Robinson, which Kirkus starred. It's an extraordinary volume of work for someone who continues to work as a full-time journalist, but Haygood says, "I'm very disciplined and focused, and that helps." He has also devoted his life and his storytelling talents to telling the engaging, complete stories of African-American life that would otherwise be lost to history.
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Austin.