PW: You've written a biography of civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and in your new book, In Black and White, you've written about Sammy Davis Jr. Why Sammy?
Wil Haygood: I wanted a subject that would totally exhaust me. I wanted to go in and investigate things that I knew nothing about such as vaudeville, Hollywood and Broadway. As a biographer, I had a wonderful tunnel of differing opinions and attitudes toward Sammy. Whenever I would talk with many of my black friends about Sammy, to them his was a wasted life. On the other hand, many of my white friends thought that Sammy had a fascinating life.
PW: Sammy Davis Jr. played to both white and black audiences. How influential was he in helping the black cause or entertainers get mass attention?
WH: With Sammy, it's an easy question to ask but difficult to answer properly. When I was a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio, there were almost no blacks on TV. But whenever Sammy Davis would be on television, my mom would call me from outside and say, "Come in, you've got to see Sammy Davis Jr." To be six years old in 1960 and to see him on TV as a cowboy was an amazing thing... he was pioneering. In 1963, for example, on the March to Washington, [the march organizers] raised $20,000 and Sammy wrote out a check, matching it dollar for dollar. He did not set out to be a leader like Paul Robeson; he was just an entertainer. I knew going into this book I had to clear out everything we think we know of Sammy Davis Jr. and start from scratch—and that meant going back to vaudeville and blackface.
PW: What inspired you to write about Sammy?
WH: He was a figure that when you said his name to anybody, it elicited emotions right off the bat. It's like saying "Kennedy" or "Castro" or "Elvis." To me, his story was, in a very genuine way, the story of America itself.
PW: It seems that Sammy was a better all-around performer than just a singer. Are there any recordings of his nightclub acts with the Will Mastin Trio?
WH: The footage does exist. I got lucky. Friends and acquaintances of Sammy would send me videos of him on various shows, and even as a child. It was fascinating because Sammy was our first song-and-dance man out of segregated vaudeville who demanded to be taken seriously. And he was. I have footage from 1950 of Sammy and the Will Mastin Trio walking down the street together. They are in their silk suits, and they look like they own the world in Manhattan.
PW: You begin by detailing the publication of Yes, I Can. What inspired you to do that?
WH: Originally, [the story of Sammy's autobiography] was the seventh chapter. But Peter Gethers, my editor, said that this was such a phenomenal publishing story. It showed Sammy in all of his shrewdness and wit and charm and survival—all of his instincts all rolled up. Yes, I Can was the first autobiography of a black person that many white people read.
PW: Do you think there is still an audience for Sammy Davis Jr.?
WH: I do. I was in Ohio on my last book tour and speaking at an elementary school to a bunch of fourth-graders. One of them asked me what my next book was going to be, and I said it was going to be about a misunderstood entertainer, but I didn't give the name. At the end of my talk, this blonde girl came up to me and, "It's Sammy Davis Jr., isn't it." Walking away, I realized that Sammy cuts across all of the paths you can imagine in our society. He continues to be one of the most beloved and revered figures in Japan.
PW: Sammy Davis Jr. was often called an "Uncle Tom." In your opinion, was he?
WH: No, he was not. The deeper you look into his life, the more you see that he wasn't. He was conflicted, however, over race. He was, for many years, unsure of how he should handle race. And I think he truly found himself later in life. But he was who he was. He was a vaudevillian—a motherless child. Vaudevillians do anything to survive. They'll get yanked around until they prove that they can survive.