An urgent memoir, a call to action
In the 2014 gubernatorial election in South Carolina, Bakari Sellers, a young black legislator with a first name reminiscent of Barack Obama’s, was running for lieutenant governor against “good old boy” politician (and current governor) Henry McMaster. Sellers had no national profile until the media called upon him to comment on the massacre of nine parishioners at the historic “Mother” Emanuel Church in Charleston in 2015. From there, Sellers became a political pundit on CNN. In a new memoir, he recounts his journey from a dirt-poor town in South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame” to his life as a lawyer and advocate for the voiceless in a very loud nation.
My Vanishing Country fulfills the double-nature of many African-American memoirs, autobiographies, and even (in the case of Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig) fiction: it serves not only to tell us about the life of the author or protagonist but also to inspire activism and resistance to America’s long history of white supremacy and crimes against people of color. Sellers joins a long line of Black authors like Frederick Douglass and others who penned slave narratives in the nineteenth century, as well as Malcolm X in the twentieth and Ta-Nehisi Coates in the twenty-first. Each uses their personal struggle to reflect the African-American struggle in miniature, and to address the needs of a diverse, wounded, and mistreated community.
Bakari Sellers has a deeply personal tie to the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties and Sixties; his father, radicalized by the death of Emmett Till, became a trusted friend and associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond, and Stokely Carmichael. The Orangeburg Massacre of 1968 occurred in part because the FBI and local law enforcement targeted Cleveland Sellers for arrest and possibly assassination. Police killed three students from an all-black university, and wounded several more, in the encounter.
Sellers grew up in Denmark, a primarily black town in a part of South Carolina where schools are in a constant state of collapse, the textbooks are at least two generations out of date, and representatives in the state house are more interested in lining their own pockets than in representing their constituents. He graduated high school and college early, ran for office against a long-term white incumbent and won the 2006 election, becoming the youngest lawmaker in state history. In 2014, he ran to become lieutenant governor, all before reaching the age of thirty.
But it’s not about personal gain, as Sellers makes clear in his book. He would rather bring benefits to his constituents and make sure that people in power hear their voices. In a part of the country where the majority population is black but the minority white population is in power, that just doesn’t happen very often. Sellers in his book to address the precarious health care situation for black women, who often die at higher mortality rates than white women because their doctors don’t take their pain seriously.
He also discusses the death of his close friend Clementa Pickney and eight others in the horrific shooting at Mother Emanuel, which prompted the removal of the Confederate flag from its place of “honor” on the state house grounds in Columbia. And he addresses the election of Donald Trump, a man diametrically opposed to everything that Sellers has worked for in his life.
Bakari Sellers is a son of South Carolina, but he’s from a part of the state that might be unfamiliar to someone raised in another, more affluent (or at least more white) part. He’s come a long way as a lawyer, legislator, pundit, and activist. But his work is never done, not until he no longer needs to hold up a mirror to the America that doesn’t recognize the humanity of him nor that of his black brothers and sisters. HIs memoir is less a summation than a call to action, and it behooves every reader, no matter their complexion, to heed that call.
(Amistad, May 19, 2020)