Wil Haygood's Harlem passion project

Dave Ghose
Wil Haygood

Harlem is a recurring setting in the literary output of Wil Haygood, the acclaimed Columbus-born journalist and author who wrote “The Butler” and several other popular works of nonfiction. In fact, the New York neighborhood plays a major role in four of Haygood's six books, starting in 1993 with “King of the Cats,” a biography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the flamboyant and pioneering politician who represented Harlem for 24 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That book was followed by biographies of singer and dancer Sammy Davis Jr. (2003), boxer Sugar Ray Robinson (2009) and U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall (2015), all of whom lived in Harlem. The four men “were emboldened and became richer in their minds by virtue of having had relatives or friends who had been very prominent in the rise of the Harlem Renaissance,” Haygood says. “I've often thought about writing a stage play with these four people sitting around in a bar talking about their lives to each other: Sammy talking to Adam, Adam talking to Thurgood and Thurgood talking to Sugar Ray.”

So when discussions began locally about a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance arts movement, which lasted through the 1930s, it was only logical that Haygood take a leading role as curator ofI, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100, an exhibition of paintings, drawings, photographs and ephemera on display at the Columbus Museum of Art beginning in October. Though he's never organized a museum show before, Haygood seems more than qualified to delve into the topic. “It really was the first organized black arts movement in this country,” Haygood says. “And you have to think five years, 10 years before the Harlem Renaissance, blacks were referred to in mass media in very derogatory terms. The artists and the painters and the sculptors and the photographers and the singers—they all changed, slowly but surely, that mindset.”

The project's initiation led to a wider discussion about the ripple effects of the Harlem Renaissance and its impacts still felt today in the African-American community. Soon, other local arts organizations wanted to play a role. Commitments have now been secured for I, Too, Sing America programming from organizations including BalletMet, CATCO, COSI, the Jazz Arts Group, the King Arts Complex, Shadowbox Live, Thurber House, the Wexner Center for the Arts and others. columbusmakesart.com/harlemrenaissance