Interview With The Author Of 'My Vanishing Country'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Protests continue around the country after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last Monday. Through the weekend, we've been asking different thought leaders to help us - well, think about it. So now we're turning to the author of a new book that remarkably addresses both crises the country is facing right now - the coronavirus pandemic, which continues, and the issue of policing tactics in black and brown communities.
You probably know attorney Bakari Sellers as a TV news analyst and rising political leader. At the age of 22, he was the youngest elected state lawmaker in the country, a race he started preparing for while still in college. Years later, he ran for lieutenant governor as a Democrat in deeply red South Carolina in hopes of becoming the first African American elected to statewide office there since 1876.
In a new memoir, Bakari Sellers writes in deeply personal terms about the moments that shaped him, including a deadly law enforcement shooting on protesters at a black college near his hometown which cast a shadow over his childhood. The book is called "My Vanishing Country," and Bakari Sellers is with us now to tell us more.
Bakari Sellers, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
BAKARI SELLERS: Thank you so much for having me. And thank you for the voice you've given throughout the week on this travesty, injustice and everything we're seeing as a result thereof. So thank you.
MARTIN: One of the signature events of the book is what is known as the Orangeburg Massacre. This happened in Orangeburg, S.C., on the campus of South Carolina State University, which is an historically black university. This happened in 1968. Highway patrolmen opened fire on civil rights protesters who wanted to desegregate the bowling alley. Three people were killed. Your dad was shot and wounded and later served prison time.
MARTIN: This happened before you were born, but it left a lasting impact on your life. I mean, in the book, you write about a speech you gave subsequently. You said, it remains the most important day of my life. My father's path and my own are woven together over the same bloody ground. As briefly as you can, talk about that. Why is that?
SELLERS: It's an amazing story of tragedy and injustice. A law enforcement shot my father and 28 others. They killed three young men, none of them over the age of 19. All the officers who fired shots were tried. They were all found not guilty. My father was charged, tried and convicted of rioting, becoming the first and only one-man riot in the history of this country.
And so in "My Vanishing Country," I literally talk about not just that incident but how it's informed my perspective being a child of the movement and also outline my trauma and my pain of living with that and carrying that burden and carrying that legacy all the way through the Charleston massacre, where my good friend Clementa Pinckney was gunned down after worshipping on Wednesday night at Bible study.
And now, I mean, just to bring it forward to this week, I mean, my father's 75, and I'm 35, and we have many of the same shared experiences. And so I wrote a book, and I outlined these traumas, and I outlined these stories because I want people to understand the trauma. I want people to understand the pain that goes along with being black in this country and just listen and read.
And if you have that understanding, maybe we can have conversations with empathy, and maybe we can have conversations with compassion, and maybe we can have conversations with humanity and begin to heal the vivid divides that we have in this country.
MARTIN: One of the things, though, that was so remarkable to me about the book is that you write about this in a very frank, raw way. I mean, you talk about the fact that you've come to terms with your own anxiety, but you had to acknowledge that you have it.
And I just - I found it so remarkable because I think that in recent years, we've come to acknowledge and even in some quarters celebrate the heroism of people who did work and fight so hard to desegregate the bowling alleys, to create opportunities for the entire country, to, you know, help this country live up to its stated ideals. But I don't think very many people have actually really been frank about the trauma that this...
SELLERS: You know...
MARTIN: ...Create and the fact that it can be passed on. And I just was - I was interested in why you wanted to write about this in such a public way, especially because you are a public figure yourself.
SELLERS: You know, I see my father today, and I see that his eyes don't pop like they used to from shedding so many tears because of so many loved ones lost, from Emmett to Medgar to Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, to Smith, Hammond and Middleton. I mean, so - and his shoulders, they don't stand as upright as they once did from carrying the burdens of a generation. And that weighs on a child of that father.
And then I'd look at my mom, and my mom had to carry an entire family. Imagine being a black woman in this country, and your husband goes to prison because of an injustice, and you're carrying their first - your first child. You give birth to that child only for the first time your husband can see that child is on the prison yard. And then you live in a society where your husband has a felony on his record. So you have to not only work twice as hard like most people, but you have to work even harder to care for that family.
And then you give birth to not one but two sons, my brother and I. And you have to live like every other black woman in this country, which is deathly afraid that when your son goes out, he may end up like Ahmaud Arbery, or he may end up like George Floyd.
And so that anxiety, that trauma, has weighed on me, has weighed on our family. And I'm prayerful I don't pass it down to my sweet Kaya (ph), Stokely and Sadie. That's why I talk about it. And that's why I tried to make sure that I live with intentionality and purpose - so we can create what you just outlined in your question - a more perfect union.
MARTIN: How do you think this is all connected to - as I said, the other major crisis facing the country, which is this health crisis in which the disparities in how people are experiencing this have become very obvious - the fact that African Americans seem to be at greater risk of dying and, you know, followed closely by certain other groups, particularly Latinos and Native Americans. I mean, how do you - do you see these two connected in some way?
SELLERS: Oh, undoubtably. I got into a very public spat with Jerome Adams, who's our United States surgeon general, because this isn't a question of black folk need to just stop drinking and stop smoking.
You know, I outline in my book where I'm from, Denmark. We lived in a food desert, which means you can't go two or three miles and get healthy fruits and vegetables, so you have to get the sugar and the Kool-Aid packets that are, like, nine or 12 cents, and you mix the two packets of Kool-Aid in water in a gallon pitcher, and that lasts you for two or three days, so you're more likely to have diabetes.
We don't have a hospital. We lost our hospital in 2010 because of failure to expand Medicaid. And we don't - that means you don't have access to quality care. The water that we're drinking is polluted. The air that we're inhaling from the manufacturing plant or whatever it may be means you're inhaling toxins, so you're more likely to have asthma.
I say all of that to say that the systemic conditions in this country lead to black folk having these comorbidities and these preventable diseases. And because we have never addressed these systemic issues, the data now shows us that now we have an overlay of a pandemic, which means that we are dying at higher rates.
MARTIN: How do you feel right now? I mean, do you have any sense of hopefulness? I mean, honestly, your title doesn't suggest so. You called it "My Vanishing Country" - the title of your memoir. I mean, it doesn't sound like you have a lot of optimism about the path that we're on.
SELLERS: I am very, very hopeful. I refuse to let people take away my hope. I refuse to let people take away my faith. But as I said earlier, we have made a lot of progress, but we still have so far to go. And I want to live in a country where my kids can be free. And that's why I continue to work and lift up those voices of the voiceless and continue to lift up the voices of the unheard so that we can actually live in a more perfect union. And what keeps me hopeful is I believe in what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
MARTIN: What would make a difference right now?
SELLERS: We need justice in this country. We need it to actually mean something. I need the other three officers to be arrested in the killing of George Floyd. I need the officers in Louisville to be arrested for the killing of Breonna Taylor. But not only that - I need accountability. I need people to be giving tangible solutions like lowering the federal civil rights standards so we can bring criminal cases against law enforcement officers who kill us like dogs in the street.
I need us to talk about qualified immunity. And then I need us to talk about directing resources to these communities that have had this lack of growth for not years but decades, that have been underserved and underrepresented.
So just don't tell us to go home, and don't just tell us to just vote because these people - we have voted. We voted for years. We've been voting. And our concerns have gone unheard, and our plight has not changed. And so I want people to begin to talk about tangible solutions to improve the plight. Talk about the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act of the '60s, and talk about improving our plight today.
MARTIN: That is lawyer and political analyst Bakari Sellers. His memoir, "My Vanishing Country," is out now.
Bakari Sellers, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SELLERS: No, thank you for allowing me to lend my voice to this very, very important discussion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.