‘Butler’ author, NYU prof. discuss literature, journalism

Nomko Bataar for WSN
Nomko Bataar for WSN

Fans of the New York Times Bestseller “The Butler: A Witness to History” shifted anxiously in their seats as they awaited Wil Haygood, the book’s author.

On Sept. 21, in the Skylight Gallery in the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. in Brooklyn, Haygood spoke about his latest work NYU journalism professor and author Pamela Newkirk during a Bookend Event at the annual Brooklyn Book Festival.

The event, A Literary Salon: A Conversation with Authors Wil Haygood and Pamela Newkirk, Newkirk asked Haygood about his experience writing “The Butler” and his careers as a journalist and as an author. This Bookend discussion was part of a series of literary-themed events including parties, film screenings, writer presentations, performances and games at various locations throughout Brooklyn. The festival is the largest free literary event in New York City, and dozens of acclaimed authors, journalists and editors — like Haygood and Newkirk— make appearances.

Denise Fabella for WSN

In 2008, Haygood, a reporter for the Washington Post, published an article profiling the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American who served as a butler in the White House for eight presidents — from President Harry Truman to President Ronald Reagan. After President Barack Obama was elected, Haygood wanted to write a piece investigating the life of an African-American that work in the White House during times of racial segregation in the United States.

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Haygood garnered over 2,400 emails the day after the book was published. Some were praise and appreciation, but he also received several movie offers. Haygood accepted an offer, and the film “The Butler,” directed by Lee Daniels was released Aug. 5, 2013. Once the movie was in production, Haygood decided to continue researching Allen.

“To have one man who was in the White House through eight administrations and for so many pivotal moments in America … those are the kind of stories that often get overlooked,” Newkirk said.

Nomko Bataar for WSN

Newkirk, a tenured NYU Journalism professor, was formerly a journalist for New York Newsday and has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Nation. She also authored “Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media,” and edited “A Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African-American Love Letters and Letters from Black America.” Newkirk, like Haygood, wanted to tell the often untold stories of African-American history with her literature.

“I wanted to look at an often underrepresented facet of black life,” Newkirk said, referring to “A Love No Less.” “It was the first time anyone had ever tried to tell a narrative story of black life through letters.”

After reading “The Butler,” Tisch sophomore Maddy Boles appreciated the insightful, close-up of history.

“The book’s perspective was so unique,” Boles said. “The story of one African-American man that worked in the White House as a servant gives you a personal account of history that is unmatched in textbooks.”


Nicole Del Mauro is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]

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