An interview with WIL HAYGOOD: Author of Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court that changed America

PHOTO: Julia Ewan/TWP–Wil Haygood, The Washington Post.

Will Haygood interviewed by Bobby Burns in 2016

Cultural biographers are like Soul Food chefs who build masterful creations: it’s messy in the kitchen, flour everywhere, and when their done, patron’s guttle the food with joy. I stumbled upon Wil Haygood this past summer being interviewed on an in-depth C-SPAN show.  What a stimulating three hours!  It was on a Sunday evening, as I sat in my Arizona home watching another TV episode of Columbo, a friendly, verbose, working-class, disheveled police detective of Italian descent, whose trademarks included: wearing a rumpled beige raincoat over his suit and smoking a cigar. You might say Wil is a cultural detective of sorts, as he digs into the past to unearth facts about the subjects he likes writing about. Furthermore, Haygood searches for those gaps in history. He is long-limbed and down-to-earth with an appetite for recording black history. His body of work is a sample of the odyssey of legendary folks. This is prosopography on the grand scale.

He has written several books. These include Two on the River, King of Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr., The Haygood’s of Columbus: A Family Memoir, The Butler: A Witness to History, and Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America. Wil Haygood is a prominent American journalist and author of several best-selling biographies and other works of non-fiction. Haygood was born in 1954 in Columbus, Ohio. He grew up in Columbus and graduated from Miami University in 1976. He decided to become a journalist. Although he had little formal training, the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette hired him as a copyeditor. Two years later, Haygood accepted a position with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In 1984, Haygood became a staff writer at the Boston Globe and as a national and foreign correspondent. He remained with this newspaper for the next seventeen years. In 1991, he became a writer for the Style Section of the Washington Post. Haygood has received numerous awards, including the Sunday Magazine Editors Award, the New England Associated Press Award, and the National Association of Black Journalists Award for Foreign Reporting. Travel to Columbus, Ohio, and you’ll find Wil Haygood Way named in his honor.

Bobby Burns: In your book: The Haygood’s of Columbus: A Family Memoir. Your family moved from Selma, Alabama to Columbus, Ohio. Your family lived on Mount Vernon Ave, a predominately African American historic neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. How did Mt. Vernon Ave., shape you as a person and why was it important to originally name the book- The Rise and Fall of Mt. Vernon Ave?

Wil Haygood: There were just fascinating characters on Mt. Vernon Avenue. And being in that environment got me in tune with the rise and fall of the street, because I saw it thriving then nose diving. I would not have seen that in the up-close manner I did if my family had on continued to live on the north side of the city.

Bobby Burns: I don’t recall, “Who said the most important thing that you as a biographer can do is to write from the heart.” What motivated you to become a cultural biographer?

Wil Haygood: I’m fascinated by history, and the people who I pull from history with dramatic lives make for great narrative. A biography of Adam Powell or Sammy Davis became a driving narrative of mid-20th Century America.

Bobby Burns: Do you think America has lost its moral bearings as we see another reminder of slavery with latest mini TV series Roots and other films like 12 Years a Slave?

Wil Haygood: Nations go through moral challenges. It’s happened through history. Roots was a cinematic phenomenon when first shown in the 1970s. It is a good thing a new generation has been introduced to the story of slavery, and how resilience came to be embedded in a whole race of people. 

Bobby Burns: Is it the role of a writer to save society? Why or why not?

Wil Haygood: Writers can illuminate. They can expose. There was a period in the 1960s when writers like James Baldwin, William Styron, and Toni Cade Bambara were fearless in writing about race and politics in the big magazines of the day. I would toss in the photographs and prose of Gordon Parks as well.

Bobby Burns: What conclusion can you make from the day you remember the first time a word on the page became a sinuous creature to you, when you really discovered there was life and power and joy there?

Wil Haygood: I was a high school senior in Columbus, Ohio, when a teacher told the class I had written “a beautiful essay.” Up to that point I had never imagined my writing would be singled out. 

Bobby Burns: Here we are in 2016. What do you think is the most pressing issue we have to face in the next decade and beyond?

Wil Haygood: This being a hyper political year, there is no doubt the most pressing ethical issue lies with the candidates running for office, and our ability as citizens to parse what they are saying. They must be held accountable when they appear unprepared on the great challenging issues of the day.

Bobby Burns: Why do you think Mr. Eugene Allen stayed below the radar so long as a butler in the White House before you came along in his life?

Wil Haygood: The Butler was a story I told because it seemed a revelatory counterpoint to the election of the first black president. I’m a trained journalist; stories like that of Eugene Allen — White House butler for eight presidents — don’t come along often. A black man who worked at the White House, he voted for the first black president. That’s a deep slice of American history right there.

Bobby Burns: Can you identify the altered parts young writers should understand about the art of becoming a good writer?

Wil Haygood: I think the biggest challenge for any author is finding the right story to tell. That is, a story that will keep them engaged through the years it might take to complete the project. I’ve been fortunate inasmuch as my subjects have kept me totally intrigued.

Bobby Burns: Do you feel your years as a journalist afforded you more of an outlook which has helped you when writing about your subjects over the years?

Wil Haygood: Journalism gave me the confidence to become a historian. I knew how to look for and find stories. I knew how to structure a narrative. Yes, journalism is a different beast than writing books, but some of the same skill set must be utilized.

Bobby Burns: You stated during your C-Span interview about standing in the lunch line on the set of the filming of The Butler and you heard a voice calling out your name and it was Oprah calling you over for a chat. What was that conversation like?

Wil Haygood: Oprah Winfrey told me the reason she wanted to play the butler’s wife was because she felt that generation of adult blacks — in the 1950s especially — were overlooked when it came to cinema and stories about the history of blacks. The White House butler and his wife sent money to the churches that collected money for the civil rights marchers. They must be counted in the arc of history. 

Bobby Burns: Writers live self-contained lives when working on their crafts. Can you describe for the reader where you get your work done?

Wil Haygood: I think friends have always seen a kind of perseverance in me. I like prying gates open. I was determined to write books and have been fortunate to find book editors — especially Peter Gethers — who have believed in me. I can write anywhere as long as it is QUIET. 

Bobby Burns: Alex Haley worked as a cook during his U.S. Coast Guard days before his writing career took off and other famous writers did odd jobs until finding success in the literary world as well along the way. Did it take getting fired to decide… to become a storyteller?

Wil Haygood: I got fired from a job at Macy’s dept. store when I was in my early 20s. I just couldn’t understand retailing. I was old enough to realize it was time to find something I could be passionate about. That was writing.

Bobby Burns: The edifice of Showdown is different in terms of how it’s systematized. Do you think a writer must have an editor by their side in the writing process? 

Wil Haygood: Peter Gethers understood right away the structure I wanted for the book. It was an unusual structure, writing a Marshall biography around the stretched out five days’ worth of hearings. The hearings were riveting theatre to me, but Peter kept reminding me: This book is ALSO a biography of Marshall’s life.

Bobby Burns: Writing a book is hard to do, getting it published is even a more daunting task to any would be author. The rejections can drive one to give up on their dream of getting their work published. What guidance can you give someone on staying the course?

Wil Haygood: The main thing about book writing is finding the right story to tell, then carving out the time in one’s life. It takes discipline and fortitude. There simply is no magic formula. 

Bobby Burns: Thank you for your time, Mr. Haygood

Wil Haygood: Thank you, Bobby

Bobby Burns is author of the internationally acclaimed book: Shelter: One man’s journey from homelessness to hope (University of Arizona Press). His other publications have been featured in the Louisiana Review, 42 Words Anthology, Sonora Review, Occupy Tucson NewspaperHowling Dog Press and others. He’s had the pleasure of interviewing authors Ernest Gaines at his home in Oscar, Louisiana. He’s also interviewed the late poets Ai and Amiri Baraka. Sonia Sanchez, Simon Ortiz, Leslie Mormon Silko, David Ray, 

Bobby is also a former writer with the Arizona Informant Newspaper and he has written several op-ed editorials in the Tucson Citizen and Arizona Daily Star newspapers. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with wife and family. He earned a graduate degree from Northern Arizona University.   Contact Bobby at: bobbyburnsauthor@gmailcom.

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