Monday, August 5, 2013

Cultural historian Wil Haygood on The Butler and the power of consistency

The Butler: A Witness to History is the story of Eugene Allen, as told by veteran journalist, cultural historian and master biographer Wil Haygood. I spoke with Haygood for a forthcoming print Kirkus Reviews feature weeks ago, and in preparation for our talk, I realized that I had a galley of his Sugar Ray bio, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson and King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in my personal collection.

Reading through the part of his oeuvre that he seems most proud of, I noticed his tendency to elevate forgotten aspects of the black male experience in America to a level of grace and style that we rarely see in literature or cultural works of art. This was true of the well-known figures like Sammy Davis Jr., the subject of Haygood's bio, In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. You get the sense that while history may have tried to ignore these men, Haygood is intent on not just remembering them, but congealing their achievements in amber; preserving their achievements for generations to come.

The Butler is the slimmest of all Haygood's works, but just as powerful. Unfortunately, I saw the trailer for the movie when I went to see Fruitvale Station. I think that's unfortunate because I love many of the actors in the film, and I think Mr. Allen's story is an important one to tell, in book-version and on screen. But The Butler is a very different slice of black history than the one of unchecked violence against black children and racial fear, so the bad timing was the first thing that I noticed. It is difficult to keep a new racial dialogue going in the aftermath of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case while also, in the view of a moviegoer, amplifying the story of a man who worked as the help for decades.

All the same, Haygood's book, and hopefully the movie, aim to infuse a job considered by my generation as a less horrific but still problematic iteration of slavery with the humanity and complexity that books/movies like The Help were unable to.

Here's part of what Haygood had to say about Eugene Allen and the book:

Eugene the least known subject of a biography that I've ever tackled. It's a much smaller book, but in his own way, he's just as important. He was there during Little Rock, he was there during the killing of Medgar Evers, he was there during the bombing of the four little girls... by there I mean he was at the epicenter of power, where people expect our leader to do something about it, in the White House. Eugene Allen saw the writing of the speeches in the White House. He was there when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and he stayed there throughout the night to offer comfort. He was there for 34 years. Very consistent. There's power in being consistent.
He was there during segregation and during integration. Unlike the others, he had no power behind him. He was a humble servant. He had no power. He worked at the most powerful address in the world. He had no power and yet he worked at the most powerful address in the world and he believed in his country. While he was serving LBJ, he had to contend with the fact that LBJ had sent his only son Charles, into the jungles of Vietnam. That's almost Shakespearean - you're serving tea to the president who sent your son to war. 
Haygood is also working on a script for the Sugar Ray Robinson book, which will also be a movie, and a biography of Thurgood Marshall. 

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