COLLEGE PARK, MD. — After writing biographies of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sammie Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall, and a feature article published in The Washington Post that inspired the film “The Butler,” Wil Haygood authored his first exhibition catalog.

“I Too Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100” (Rizzoli Electa, 2018) accompanied an exhibition of the same name organized by the Columbus Museum of Art with Haygood serving as curator. The volume made the Culture Type list of Best Black Art Books of 2018 and was recognized with the fourth James A. Porter & David C. Driskell Book Award on April 4.

 


Wil Haygood delivers the 2019 Distinguished Annual Lecture in the Visual Arts at the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park on April 4, 2019. Works from the exhibition “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” are displayed in the background. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

An original exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, “I, Too, Sing America” presented more than 120 artworks and objects. Works by artists including Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, Archibald Motley, Charles Alston, Malvin Gray Johnson, Augusta Savage, and James Van Der Zee, were featured along with books, brochures, posters, and related ephemera documenting the period.

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Haygood is an author and veteran journalist whose held posts at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. He collaborated with his hometown museum to produce a show and catalog focused on the Renaissance as a cultural movement the resonated beyond Harlem and a particular time frame. The project draws on decades of research, reporting, and reflection by Haygood, who grew up on the Near East Side of Columbus, described by the museum as “a jazz-filled landscape that was an exuberant legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Written almost entirely by Haygood, the lavishly illustrated catalog explores how Harlem became a mecca for black art, literature, music, performance, politics, and intellectual discourse. Interspersed between Haygood’s essays are page-long profiles of individual visual artists penned by additional contributors. A narrative companion to the exhibition, the volume features artworks and documentary material beyond those on view in the show.

In the opening essay titled “Becoming Harlem, Haygood wrote “…it was glorious, and beautiful, and unforgettable. The impact of the movement during its time swept as far away as London and Paris. …They were black artists who lit a torch. Men and women who made art—art that was often so potent it forced America to take notice. It was a renaissance, true enough, but nothing had come before it. And so it was a resistance.”

HAYGOOD ACCEPTED the book award and delivered the 2019 Distinguished Annual Lecture in the Visual Arts at the Driskell C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. The satellite event was the opening program of the annual James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora hosted by Howard University. Haygood gave an engrossing speech. His gift for storytelling was on full display along with a real knack for humor.

David Driskell, the pioneering artist, art historian, and scholar, introduced Haygood and presented him with the award. “To my knowledge, we are the only institution doing this,” he said, meaning recognizing publications focused on African American art history.

The James A. Porter & David C. Driskell Book Award is named for Driskell and James A. Porter (1905-1970), the artist and longtime chair of the art department at Howard University, who is credited with establishing the academic field of African American art history.

“This is something that we think is very special and we give it sparingly,” Driskell said. The Driskell Center was founded in 2001, he noted, and the award has only been given on four occasions.

One of the most popular and extensively researched periods of African American history, the Harlem Renaissance has inspired a steady stream of creative output, from books and documentaries to art and exhibitions.

“People say, ‘Well, you know, the Harlem Renaissance, haven’t we had enough of it? No!,'” Driskell said, emphatically. Referring to Haygood, he added: “Then somebody comes along with a fresh idea. Someone comes with the interesting commitment he has to scholarship. Then we certainly are pleased to have that point of view.”

Driskell said he was presenting the book award “in the name of Porter, my mentor who defined the field and passed the mantle on to me.” Then he brought Haygood up to the podium.

 


PALMER HAYDEN (1890–1973), “The Subway,” 1930s (oil on canvas, 31 x 26 ½ inches). | State of NY/Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building Collection. Courtesy Rizzoli Electa

 

A SCHOLAR-IN-RESIDENCE at Miami University in Ohio, his alma mater, Haygood began by saying he was “humbled” to receive the award. “It is quite an honor to be here, but make no mistake about it,” he said, “there is only one superstar in this room and that is the great artist David Driskell.”

In his remarks, Haygood didn’t focus on the catalog or the exhibition, but rather talked about his love of reading and relationship with Harlem and in doing so gave an engaging distillation of his path from Columbus to journalism and eventually writing books. Two early encounters influenced Haygood’s career—a Langston Hughes book and a meeting with James Baldwin.

“My Harlem,” he said. “Harlem in this strange way has seeped inside me. It started in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio.”

The first in his family to attend college, Haygood graduated from Miami University in 1976 with a degree in urban planning. He returned home to Columbus where he lived with his grandparents and got a job that paid him every two weeks.

He determined that each payday he would go to the local bookstore to buy a hardback book. He said he was “excited” about the prospect and called it “a gift to myself.”

“Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967” was published in 1980. One payday, Haygood saw the book displayed on an easel in the bookstore. He said he had to have it. He purchased the book, took it home, and immediately dove into it.

“I sat on the porch leafing through that book, and there it was, the kind of literature that I didn’t get in high school. Nobody told me about Augusta Savage or Countee Cullen or Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes in high school,” Haygood said.

“I sat on the porch leafing through that book, and there it was, the kind of literature that I didn’t get in high school. Nobody told me about Augusta Savage or Countee Cullen or Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes in high school.” — Wil Haygood

It took him four days to read the book. “I told my family the next day after I finished reading the book… ‘I’m leaving. I’m going to New York City,'” Haygood said.

“These people in this book, they were anchored in New York City for a reason. So I don’t want to stay here in the Midwest. I’m going to leave,” Haygood recalled thinking. “I told my mom who lived with us in my grandparents house. They looked at me like I was crazy and they all said, ‘Boy, You ain’t got no relatives in New York City. What in the world are you talking about? You ain’t going to New York City.'”

 


HORACE PIPPIN (1888–1946), “Self-Portrait,” 1941 (oil on canvas board, 14 x 11 inches). | Collection Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1942. Courtesy Rizzoli Electa

 

FOUR MONTHS LATER, after saving $550, he said he took a Trailways bus to New York City. “I just wanted to be around artists,” Haygood said. He lived at the YMCA, got a job in a restaurant, saw plays and when he started running out of money, he remembered his “grandaddy” told him that as long as he had that piece of paper, his college degree, he would be alright.

Walking through Macy’s one day, he said he overheard someone talking about the executive training program and envisioned himself with a career in retailing. He applied to the program, got accepted and started working at a store in Queens in the sheets and towels department. “If you were in New York City, back in the day, during the White Sale, that was me,” said Haygood, pausing for a moment while the audience laughed. “My mama was telling people, ‘Hey, my baby running Macy’s.'”

Haygood “loved the job,” dressed in suits and ties, and thought he was on his way up the corporate ladder. After a year and two months at Macy’s, he said his manager called him to her office and said things weren’t working out. She said he wasn’t ruthless enough for retailing and spent too much time in the stockroom reading books.

After a year and two months at Macy’s, he said his manager called him to her office and said things weren’t working out. She said he wasn’t ruthless enough for retailing and spent too much time in the stockroom reading books.

Fighting for his job he said he would do better. She said he wasn’t cut out for the business and told him to go home and write down what he really wanted to do in life. He was 23-years old.

He didn’t know what to write and faced with the prospect of losing his job, he couldn’t get any sleep that night. Haygood tried again to get something down on paper and said he “just started riffing.” He wrote about missing his family, moving to New York, and his adventures walking around the city on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.

The next day he handed his manager about eight handwritten pages. She read through them and had an unexpected response. He said, “After she finished it, she looked up at me and said, ‘Wil, whatever you do in life, you ought to go and become a writer.’ She said, ‘This is so beautiful.'” It was a pivotal moment. Her encouragement pointed him in the right direction.

 


NORMAN LEWIS (1909-1979), “Jumping Jive,” 1942 (oil on canvas, 16 1/8 x 30 inches). | Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York. Courtesy Rizzoli Electa

 

BALDWIN AND ARNA BONTEMPS wrote for newspapers, he recalled. Hughes did, too. “This is the route I’ve got to go,” Haygood thought. He went home to Columbus, regrouped, and managed to get himself a job at the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. Then he moved on to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, before landing at the Boston Globe working in the features department on a probationary basis for six months. Five weeks into his tenure at the Globe, he got a plum assignment.

The features editor said there was a visiting writer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She wanted Haygood to interview him and write a story about him. Who’s the writer, he asked. James Baldwin, she said. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. “James Baldwin! Wil Haygood out of Columbus, Ohio, was going to meet James Baldwin!” Haygood excitedly told the audience gathered at the Driskell Center.

He recalled the scene when went to see Baldwin:

    He was staying at a farmhouse in the woods, a very fancy farmhouse I saw from the road. There were two faculty members who lived there. I walked up onto the porch and they were expecting me and she said, “Wil it’s nice to have you here. Go on inside and Jimmy will be right down.” So there I am, sitting in the living room, waiting on Jimmy Baldwin. If you’ve seen any newsreel footage of him, you know there’s this hipster way that he talks. He comes flitting down the steps, cigarette in his hand. “Hey baby, how you doing?” I said, “Mr. Baldwin. Great. What an honor to meet you.” And I get out my notebooks and I’m interviewing him. Asking a lot of questions. He’s taking me in and out of Harlem, in and out of Paris, in and out of Los Angeles, in and out of his friendship with Martin Luther king Jr.

Haygood continued:

    At the end of the interview I said to myself, Wil now’s your time. You’ve got to ask Mr. Baldwin what you told yourself on the train that you were going to ask him. Now, I hadn’t written a single book at that time and I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Baldwin, can I ask you something personal?” And he said, “Oh sure, baby, shoot.” And I said, “Do you think, Mr. Baldwin, that I will someday be able to write books?” James Baldwin looked at me and he said, “How in the hell should I know that! I have no idea!” My heart sank. I think he saw how hurt I was and then he leaned in closer to me and he said, “Hey baby, but i’ll tell you what. Whatever you do in life, you must go the way your blood beats.” That stuck with me all during my ride back: “You must go the way your blood beats.”

Haygood said those profound words from Baldwin are displayed above his writing desk to this day.

 


WINOLD REISS (1886–1953), “Harlem Girl,” circa 1925 (pencil, charcoal and pastels on heavy illustration board, 21 x 14 inches). | Museum of Art and Archeology, University of Missouri. Courtesy Rizzoli Electa

 

BACK AT THE GLOBE, Haygood wrote the Baldwin story and immediately pursued his next assignment. He proposed an ambitious project to his editor, a three-part series on the Harlem Renaissance. He said he wanted to deliver a report about “what it was, who was there, and what it means to the country now.” He managed to convince his editor, who not only said yes, but sent him to Harlem for a month.

When Haygood delivered the Harlem Renaissance articles, they were published in two parts under the header Harlem Past & Present on Sept. 9 and Sept. 10, 1984. After the final installment ran in the newspaper, Haygood said the editor of the Globe summoned him to his office. Sufficiently impressed with his reportage, the editor said he was no longer on trial and hired him full-time at the paper.

As he moved up, serving as a national and foreign correspondent, he said people kept telling him, “you’ve got to write books.” Eventually he did, focusing on telling the stories of major figures associated with Harlem. His early reporting and years of research for the books connected Haygood to Harlem and its history throughout much of his career prompting the invitation for him to organize the “I, Too, Sing America” exhibition and author the catalog.

Haygood’s lecture was about 35 minutes and he held the rapt attention of the audience the entire time. He was sincere, self-deprecating, and funny. (At the end of the program, the first question from the audience was whether he had ever considered doing stand-up. Amused, he said, “No.”) He concluded his remarks by reflecting on the arc of his experiences.

“In a big way, in a huge way, I come here tonight to say to Countee Cullen to Langston Hughes to Augusta Savage to Richard Wright to Zora Neale Hurston to Countee Cullen to James Van Der Zee to Richard Wright to David Driskell,” Haygood said, naming a couple of people twice, “I come here to say from the bottom of my heart, ‘Thank you for lighting a candle that this writer followed from Columbus to Harlem.'” CT

 

FIND MORE Wil Haygood’s Harlem Renaissance articles published by the Boston Globe in 1984 are available online via the newspaper’s online archives here and here (subscription required)

 

BOOKSHELF
“I Too Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100” accompanied the exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art. Wil Haygood’s latest book is “Tigerland: 1968-1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing,” which is about the black baseball and basketball teams at a segregated high school in Columbia, Ohio. He has authored a number of well-received biographies, including “King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.,” “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson,” and “In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Junior.” He also wrote “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America.” After his Washington Post article about a White House butler named Eugene Allen was adapted into a movie, Haygood wrote, “The Butler: A Witness to History,” a biography about his subject

 


ALLAN ROHAN CRITE (1910–2007), “Leon and Harriet,” 1941 (oil on canvas, 36 x 26 inches). | Boston Athenæum, gift of the artist, 1971. Courtesy Rizzoli Electa

 


Selections from the Ralph DeLuca Collection of African American Vernacular Photography, circa 1899-1950 (gelatin silver print postcards, approximately 5.5 x 3.5 inches). | Courtesy Rizzoli Electa

 


ALLAN ROHAN CRITE (1910–2007), “School’s Out,” 1936 (oil on canvas, 30 x 36 1/8 inches). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, transfer from General Services Administration. Courtesy Rizzoli Electa

 

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