Wil Haygood

Wil Haygood

Fellow: Awarded 2011
Field of Study: General Nonfiction

Competition: US & Canada

Goucher College

Wil Haygood has been described as a cultural historian. He has indeed traveled down the wide passageways of America as a writer, especially considering the trio of iconic biographical figures he has explored. His King of the Cats: the Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., told the story of the enigmatic New York congressman. It was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. That was followed—after publication of a family memoir—by In Black and White: the Life of Sammy Davis Jr., a book which eschewed Rat Pack nostalgia for a probing character study into the life of a complicated song-and-dance man. It was awarded 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. In 2009 there was publication of Sweet Thunder: the Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, which told the story of the famed New York pugilist known as much for his prowess in the ring as his elegant style outside of it. The book also tells a parallel story of Robinson’s relationships with three close allies—Miles Davis, Lena Horne, and Langston Hughes. The London Guardian, taking note of the book’s musical ambitions, named Sweet Thunder one of the top ten jazz books published. The Robinson biography was also a finalist for the first-ever PEN/ESPN Book Award for Literary Sports Writing. These three true-life stories illustrate the dazzling and sometimes heartbreaking dynamic that often took place in twentieth-century America. The Los Angeles Times critic called Haygood’s three biographical figures pivotal "personalities whom the author clearly sees as having tilled the cultural furrows in which the seeds of the civil rights movement ultimately took root."

A native of the Midwest—born in Columbus, Ohio—Wil Haygood’s first book, Two on the River, chronicled a 2,500-mile journey down the Mississippi River in honor of Mark Twain. His memoir, The Haygoods of Columbus, told of a multigenerational family’s dreams and endurance amidst urban upheaval. It was awarded the Great Lakes Book Award. Haygood has been a James Thurber Fellow at Ohio State University and an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow.

As a journalist for the Boston Globe, Wil Haygood was sent around the globe—wars in Somalia and Liberia; unrest in Nigeria and India; the historic moment of Nelson Mandela’s freedom in South Africa. At the Washington Post, where he is a national writer, Haygood has covered a wide variety of assignments. Among three that stand out: Hurricane Katrina; the Obama candidacy of 2008; and Eugene Allen, the White House butler, a man born and raised during segregation in Virginia and who would go on to serve eight presidential administrations. In retirement, he would receive a White House invitation to witness the swearing-in of the nation’s first black president.

Haygood’s Guggenheim Fellowship has allowed him to begin unraveling the myriad emotions and heated politics surrounding the 1967 Senate hearings on the nomination of the first black man—Thurgood Marshall—to the United States Supreme Court.

Profile photograph by Julia Ewan. 

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