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On The Record: Journalist and biographer Wil Haygood

Wil Haygood is a journalist and biographer whose 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served By This Election” served as the inspiration for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a 2013 film that gained widespread critical acclaim. Haygood, an author of seven books, has worked for the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. On Feb. 13, Haygood gave a talk entitled “Bringing Black History to the Screen…Untold Stories That Shape American History,” which was sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Office of the President as the Black History Month keynote speaker.

You have written biographies about American politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr., entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., professional boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the U.S. Thurgood Marshall — all powerful, but oft-forgotten, black historical figures. Why was it important to you to tell their stories?

I consider my biographies a jumping-off point of telling great, unknown narrative stories. I’m a trained journalist and so I’ve gone all over the world in search of good stories. I have an interest in bringing people out of the shadows. Often, in America, history gets written by the “victors,” and the figures I’ve written about have often had to come from behind in the race. They’ve often been abused because of their racial heritage. Their climb has been more dramatic and more — in my opinion — worthy of long-form narrative storytelling, which is what I love to do. I think that there’s a big hole in American history-telling, especially when it comes to people of color, so I’ve gone out and I’ve found these stories. These stories tell the story itself of America. If you tell the story of Sammy Davis Jr, you’re telling a story of black and white America; if you tell the story of Thurgood Marshall, you’re telling a story of black and white America.

Your Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, the White House butler who served under eight presidents, served as the inspiration for the film Lee Daniels’ The Butler. You have stated that “84 percent of the leading figures in movies are white men” and that The Butler played a role in “emancipating Hollywood” because it was followed by other movies with black leads such as Selma and Hidden Figures. What commentary did The Butler make about race? Why was it a significant film? 

It really was the first civil rights-oriented movie that was intertwined with a very patriotic story — an African American butler and eight U.S. presidents. It wasn’t just a story about white American male presidents; it was a story about a black family and their reaction to history. Usually, it’s the other way around. Usually, in sweeping epic historical stories, the black person has been in the background. One of the things that many of my friends around the country and world mentioned when they walked into theaters to see this movie is that they were sitting with the most integrated audience that they had sat with inside of a movie theater. That, to me, told a very important story. If we give the public stories that are good, nuanced and important, they’ll find an audience.

Your journalistic work often draws parallels between historical moments and current events. Why is it important that we understand our present by looking to our past? What can history tell us about the modern-day Black Lives Matter movement? What can history tell us about racial inequality on college campuses?

American history, when it comes to race and the improvements that we’ve made in race relations and civil rights laws, is a fairly current history. We cannot afford to ignore what happened in our history. We’ve made great strides as a nation when it comes to the treatment of racial matters, but we are too often reminded that there is work to do. One of the great missions of Thurgood Marshall was to attack the racially uneven U.S. justice system, where blacks were arrested oftentimes without due cause, and we’ve had many police departments having to settle huge monetary lawsuits to the families of victims, often black, who have been shot in the back by police officers. This is an ongoing crisis in law enforcement and society: the unfair treatment of minorities. Those officers who do wrong are causing great damage, coast to coast, in America.

You ended your talk by encouraging students to dream big. What is your advice to Kenyon students who are building their futures?

I would tell them that it is, without a doubt, a great time to be coming out of college. There are challenges that need to be met. There are opportunities everywhere. No matter how high a wall may seem to anyone, a dream and energy is often enough to knock that wall down, to [the point] where you can step right over it. I want the students getting ready to come out of Kenyon College to approach the world as if they can change it for the better, because they can and they must.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum is News Editor of the Collegian.