Review | Bakari Sellers’ ‘My Vanishing Country’

Growing Up a Civil Rights Activist’s Son

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If we think about rural communities at all, places like Denmark, South Carolina, with its all-black population of around 3,500, are unlikely to spring to mind. No hospital serves Denmark’s residents, the local schools are starved of resources, and employment opportunities are scarce. Clean drinking water isn’t guaranteed. Denmark exemplifies the forgotten black South.

Bakari Sellers grew up in Denmark. In 2006, Sellers made history, when, at the age of 22 and still in law school, he was elected to the South Carolina state legislature. The son of Cleveland Sellers, a Civil Rights warrior and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Jesse Jackson, and Julian Bond, Bakari was destined to join the struggle for racial equality and justice. In My Vanishing Country, Sellers recounts what it meant to be Cleveland Sellers’ son.  

Two years before the fatal shooting of four students at Kent State University in 1970 there was a less well-known shooting on the campus of South Carolina State University. Known as the Orangeburg Massacre, it’s an event that haunts Bakari Sellers to this day. Three unarmed black men were killed by police, many more were wounded, and Bakari’s father went to prison for seven months for crimes he didn’t commit. Until Cleveland Sellers received a pardon in 1993, he struggled to find steady work and endured regular visits from the FBI. The officers involved in the killings walked away. “My father’s path,” Sellers writes, “and my own are woven together over the same bloody ground.” 

As the old gospel song goes, those who struggle for freedom cannot rest. Like the new generation of civil rights activists of which he is a part, Sellers is clear-focused on what he wants to see: “I want this country I love to atone for slavery, for Jim Crow, for the prison-industrial complex, and for the attitude of ambivalence toward state violence against unarmed black men.” 

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