The Collegian
Friday, August 12, 2022

"The Butler" author Wil Haygood discusses race, storytelling at Richmond

<p>Wil Haygood's "The Butler" documents the experiences of a butler for eight U.S. presidents. Photo courtesy of biography.com.&nbsp;</p>

Wil Haygood's "The Butler" documents the experiences of a butler for eight U.S. presidents. Photo courtesy of biography.com. 

Wil Haygood spoke at Richmond on Mar. 17 about history, race and the power of the story as part of this year’s Sharp Viewpoint Speakers Series.

Haygood is best known for telling Eugene Allen’s story in his New York Times bestselling book, “The Butler: A Witness to History.” He served as an associate producer of the 2013 film adaptation of his book, which starred seven Academy Awards winners.

Throughout his career, Haygood has authored seven books and spent 30 years writing for the Boston Globe and Washington Post. During his time as a journalist, he witnessed Nelson Mandela walk out of prison after 27 years, was taken hostage by Somalian rebels, covered New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina for 33 days without a break, traveled with Barack Obama, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Just last week, Haygood sold the film rights of his latest book, “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America.”

As a novelist, journalist, producer, speaker and professor, Haygood said all of the roles in his life played off of one another. “Movie-making makes me a better writer, writing makes me a better professor, and teaching makes me aware of what’s going on in the world," he said. "Everything’s cut from the same quilt."

President Ronald Crutcher introduced Haygood to the audience at Alice Jepson Theatre. “Few writers in modern American history have explored this country’s cultural dynamism as Haygood has,” he said.

Elaine Wissuchek, WC’18, attended the talk for a creative writing class and described Haygood as a compelling storyteller.

It was with the ease and humor of a master storyteller that Haygood spoke about his experience portraying history through the eyes of a black butler who worked in the White House during the Civil Rights Movement.

Similar to many of the stories he writes, Haygood opened his speech with a scene. He described running into an old friend from the movie production of “The Butler” at an airport, and being asked whether his life had changed since the movie’s release. After his initial response, “I’m still the same cat I’ve always been,” Haygood reflected that he did hear from both of the women who turned him down for high school prom.

Eugene Allen’s story first reached national audiences in Haygood’s article for the Washington Post, “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Haygood said he wanted to write about Barack Obama’s presidential campaign alongside a parallel story of a black person who had worked in the White House during the Civil Rights Movement.

“That person most likely would never imagine that a black person would be the President of the United States,” Haygood said. “So I went looking for a service worker in the White House—a rose gardener, a laundry person, a painter, a maid or a butler. That last phrase just rolled off of my mind. A butler. And I didn’t know why, and it still gives me goosebumps.”

Haygood said he had no idea how big Allen’s story would become until he stepped into his basement, littered with massive photo albums, framed letters from first ladies and gifts from the presidents, including one of John F. Kennedy’s ties given to him by Jackie Kennedy after his assassination.

“Walking into his basement was like walking into this great undiscovered museum of American history through the eyes of a black man who served eight presidents and who nobody knew about,” Haygood said. Allen is the first butler whose home has been distinguished a historic landmark.

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When the book was scheduled to become a movie, Haygood said he was relieved to hear Director Lee Daniels tell him that he would include all of the historical information from the book in the film. He was shocked, however, when he learned about what actors were interested in “The Butler.” The cast included Forest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams and Jane Fonda.

“Seven Oscar winners believed in the art of the story. Art transcends money. Art is the best of us,” Haygood said, reflecting on the theme of this year’s speaker series, “The Power of Art.”

“Eugene Allen showed this nation what art is about,” Haygood said.

Haygood said that if listeners could take one thing away from his speech, it would be “that when we pick up a pen and paper, and we try to tell a narrative story about America, about culture, about politics, about race, about history, that any amazing thing can happen.”

Contact news writer Missy Schrott at missy.schrott@richmond.edu

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