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Writers @Grinnell: Wil Haygood

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Wil Haygood is an internationally renowned journalist with a decades-long, decorated career. Haygood served as both a national and foreign correspondent at The Boston Globe, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and at The Washington Post. He is the author of The Butler: A Witness to History, which was made into a feature film starring Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker. Haygood has authored eight books, including the newly released “Tigerland,” published by Knopf, which tells the story of Haygood’s hometown of Columbus, where two teams from a poor, black, segregated high school won the Ohio state baseball and basketball championships in the same year in the midst of the turbulent late 1960’s.

Haygood visited Grinnell to deliver the annual Armando Montaño ’12 Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Armando Alters Montaño Writers@Grinnell Endowment Fund. Montaño, a journalist and alumnus of the College, tragically died while reporting for the Associated Press in Mexico City. The fund in his name carries on his legacy. The S&B’s Maya Dru ’21 [drumaya] spoke with Haygood about his newest work and the state of journalism in the United States.

Dru: I know you’re from Ohio, is that how you ended up at this story?

Haygood: Yes. … And every time I think I went home through the years I’d kind of imagine that some major writer from some place was going to parachute in there was going to hear about that story and was gonna say, “Heck I’ve got to write this story.” And so, 10 years passed … and this story’s not written. And so, I finally said to myself one day, actually my editor in New York, Peter Gethers, asked me what I wanted to do after my last book … . And I said, “Well, there’s an all-black high school in my hometown. Won two state championships, right after the school doors opened following the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior. They sent more people to college that year than ever before. And they also had a prize-winning debate team.”

And my editor said, “When are you going to start working on that?” And so I said, “Well, Peter, so you like it?” And he said, “yes!” And so I said, “Ok, great I’ll do what I always do for you. I’ll write my 20-page book proposal.” And he said, “Well, listen to me,” he said, “I do not need a proposal for this book. Just go write it.”

Dru: Congratulations. That sounds really fulfilling. You sound like quite the hometown hero.

Haygood: Yeah.

Dru: How does how does your hometown feel about you now? Is there more local attention on the school?

Haygood: Oh, I’ve been known! You know, I had a movie come out.

Dru: Yes, congratulations.

Haygood: There was an [event for Tigerland] that was very lovely about this event is that mayor Andrew Ginther met with me about six months before the book came out. He said, “Well I know you have this book coming out. Everybody’s looking forward to it and is excited about it. And is there anything that we in this city should be doing you know leading up to the publication of the book?”

And I said, “Mayor, one of the things that I think is very sad is that I travel a lot around the country. … As a journalist and as a biographer, I’ll be in a small town and I’ll see a marker [for] such and such as “team runner up state title 1993.” [There are] these markers all over the country for teams that didn’t even win a title. And I sit here in this town and there is nothing. There is no marker or statue. Nothing for these athletes who with a lot of pressure and a lot of social inequality rose up and made people – white, black, young, old – very proud in that heartbreaking year of 1968, 1969. If they would have been white athletes their pictures would have been on a box of Wheaties.”

And so … I said, “It just seems to me that there should be some type of marker for these athletes.”

When the day of the big soiree in my hometown and all the athletes flew in and the mayor had his easel on stage. And there was something that was real long and it was covered. And the mayor said, “I’d like the city council representatives from the east side area to come up on stage and help me lift this curtain off of the easel.”

They lifted up the curtain and the mayor said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Parkwood Avenue is the name of the street on the side of the school. And forevermore, Parkwood Avenue will become known as Tigerland Way.”

Dru: There’s been a renewed discourse around legacies and monuments. I think, it seems, like you are creating new monuments, where they need to be, for Black history.

Haygood: My career’s been more about — more than just — Black history. I have covered all kind of stories… . I’ve covered wars. I think maybe the stories that I’ve written about certain people, there was not a major biography written before. [There was not a biography] of Sammy Davis Jr. before I wrote that major biography. There wasn’t a story about the White House butler written before I wrote it. There wasn’t a story about these athletes [from] East High School. … What’s being acknowledged in my work is that I’ve uncovered lost history. And I think that’s good for all of America … to see that unacknowledged majesty of these stories. And so that makes me feel as a journalist, as a historian, as a writer, that I’m contributing something to the American literary landscape.

Dru: I mean, because you have such a big profile and such a huge following, so even when you write stories that are very local, like “Tigerland,” it becomes international news. Do you think about how create for, or think about, the relationship between local, national and international news?

Haygood: All stories are set in some local place, some town. This happened in this city or that happened in that town. I think “Tigerland” is a local story told in a national manner. The issues resonate in that story: about politics, about race, sports, history — we are dealing with some of those very issues today, 50 years on after those magical things happened inside that school. 50 years on, there are some amazing, amazing similarities between then and now. Black athletes are taking a very prominent role in social activism.

Look at Colin Kaepernick in the NFL and [the] other athletes that have joined. Just because they are sports figures doesn’t mean that they’re intellectual concern about the fate of this country should be ignored … These managers and owners who own these teams should not think that they’re buying athletes’ bodies and not their minds. These are fully-formed, developed, intelligent people who care about black kids being shot by law enforcement or the wickedness of our criminal justice system.

Look at this look at this college admissions scandal. That’s all-day long privilege. If you pay money to sneak your child into a school, then you’re taking the place of somebody who may have worked hard and could very much enrich the environment on that campus. You cheated to deny that person a place. And that is what that is not what meritocracy is supposed to be about.

Dru: Yeah. So, through shedding light, you are not only exposing why there is not meritocracy where we [want or] expect, you’re also creating an avenue for it.

Haygood: I’ve been on wide book tour for “Tigerland.” And it’s been it’s been wonderful to talk to high school students all across the country and during the high school students. Several schools have adopted the book on their syllabus. For them to read this book and to identify with these athletes. I don’t care if you’re from Somalia, or China, or inner city, or a suburb in this country … if you can read about what the members of the East High Tigers did in 1968, 1969. … I was able to use my literary reputation, my literary muscle, to tell this story because it needed to be told.

Dru: Thank you for that. As you know, the Mando Montaño Memorial is why you’re here. I know you have your own experiences of negotiating being a journalist and your bodily safety. What does it mean to be a journalist? Why [is journalism] important now?

Haygood: Journalists have in the past two years been referred to as an enemy of the people by the occupant of the White House and that’s shameful. Journalists have been attacked all over the world. I think this type of reckless rhetoric, dangerous rhetoric, ignites deranged people to attack journalists. I fell in love with journalism during the Watergate hearings, Richard Nixon, the Washington Post’s fantastic investigative journalism, which is important.

If we did not have investigative journalism or great feature writing there are so many things we would not know about. We would not know as much as we need to know about the opioid crisis, about the AIDS crisis, about what’s happening on the border when families tragically, insanely are being separated from one another. We would know as much as we should know about climate control and the damage that we have been doing to our climate. … Journalists helped expose the Flint water crisis in Michigan. That’s good journalism [that] has done this. I think the call now is ever louder for good journalism, good narrative stories.

Dru: Then why do many Americans distrust journalists, as a whole?

Haygood: I think because there’s a big apparatus that didn’t used to exist. It’s called Fox News and they give people forums to attack journalists. We’ve never had that in this country. And that’s a 24/7 spouting of crazy, crazy ideas. And now there is an industry that has been birthed in this country that believes uh that good journalism is not needed, that yelling in unintelligible discourse is the way to go. But, of course, it’s not that route leads to madness.

Dru: So, what’s next for you?

Haygood: I wrote a book [“Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson”] that is being turned into a movie. I am one of the producers. Matter of fact, I just came here from Washington, but two days before that, I was in New York City talking to actor who’s gonna play Sugar Ray Robinson. I’ve got to turn some of my attention to the making of this movie.

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