If you know who Bakari Sellers is, it’s likely because you have seen him on CNN as a political commentator. But you may also recognize Sellers as the 2014 Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. Or you may recall that in 2006, Sellers was both the youngest member of the state legislature and the youngest African American elected official in the nation.
The practicing attorney also wrote a memoir titled “My Vanishing Country”(Harpers Collins, 2020). The book covers his life in Denmark, South Carolina and is an ode to Black working-class men and women in the South. In this interview, Sellers gave his thoughts on the first one hundred days of the Biden-Harris administration, how we can honor the legacy of George Floyd, the GOP’s culture war, voter disenfranchisement, and what he hopes readers will learn from his book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you think about the Biden-Harris administration’s performance so far?
rnI’m a great admirer about what’s been accomplished the first hundred days. It’s been a very difficult hundred days-from the economy to public health to regaining our global stature. They have done a great job at being bold and I think they are more comparable to the FDR administration than any other administration we’ve seen. I’m looking forward to some of the more critical decisions they have to make.
What effect do you think the GOP’s passage of laws that make it more difficult for people to vote will have on future elections? And what can supporters of voting rights do to combat these changes?
rnWe need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill. The Voting Rights act has been gutted, and until we pass legislation in DC to protect our rights, it’s going to be a tough go. I mean, all you have to do is look at the state of Georgia but it’s just one of many states. I had a conversation with Nsé Ufot, the Chief Executive Officer of the New Georgia Project, and not only are they challenging these laws in the corporate sphere, they are challenging the law and the court of public opinion. At the end of the day, if we aren’t successful or don’t have enough time, we are going to have to compel voters to vote in a more restrictive terrain. We have to start doing that work now.
The anniversary of George Floyd’s murder is coming up on May 25. When you think about his legacy as a symbol in the Black Lives Matter movement, where have we progressed as a country since his death and how far do we have to go?
rnThere’s two fronts: one is that we got some accountability that’s been missing for a long period of time with the conviction of Derek Chauvin. I’m grateful that we are actually getting that. Second, there’s a policy piece to this. We don’t want George Floyd’s life to be in vain. Justice for George Floyd would be him actually being alive still, so that requires reforms on the front end in the ways that we police. And I’m hopeful that we can actually get the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed so that his legacy is one of not only remembrance but one where we have substantive policy change to ripple through the systems of injustice through this country.
Though it has happened to some degree across the political spectrum, the political Right is waging a cultural war against anti-racism, co-opting terms like “woke” and “critical race theory.” What are your thoughts on this?
rnIt’s funny how these words have been taken from the Black lexicon and then lambasted. Critical race theory has been a talking point of many of my friends on the Right, Nikki Haley, etc., who don’t even know what it is, don’t appreciate the reality of racism in this country, and boil us down to these really elementary, stupid conversations about "Is America racist or not?" What they are attempting to do is to still not have a conversation that is necessary to have if we are going to move this country forward.
Could you tell us a little bit about “My Vanishing Country” and what you hope readers learn from it?
rnI hope that Black folk get a sense of pride when they read it. I tried to illuminate the stories and struggles that aren’t often told, particularly of rural Black southerners; working-class folk. When white folk read the book, I hope they get a sense of understanding of what it’s like to be Black. It was very cathartic and therapeutic to write the book. It came out in a moment where people were thirsting to have more stories about our lived experiences. The timing of it was evergreen I guess, because it seems like we keep finding ourselves in these cycles of grief, of Black bodies and Black blood flowing in the streets. Hopefully we can have a better day in the future so when my son, Stokely, writes his book, it will talk about a better time period in this country.
Why do you think it’s imperative to center race when covering cultural, social and political issues?
rnOne of the most perverted political sayings now is someone saying they are colorblind. I don’t want you to be colorblind, I want you to see the value that I bring, the richness of the culture that I represent. There’s a fear of replacement by some and a cultural anxiety from others, and that becomes combustible.
Social justice is not asking for more, just demanding our share of equality. It’s tearing down systems of oppression environmentally, economically, in the criminal justice sphere, etc. so that we can all be free. For me, it’s not when people call you nigger, its the systems we have to rebuild and re-imagine. This country is not irredeemable, but we have to imagine what it could look like—a more progressive, inclusive union for us all to fit in.
Joshua Adams is a Staff Writer for Colorlines. He’s a writer, journalist and educator from the south side of Chicago. You can follow him @JournoJoshua