Review by David Starkey
Growing up in a family of Civil Rights activists, Sellers was early on schooled in the battle against racism. One of the crucial events in his family history is one of the lesser-known of the great evils of the late-1960s. As Sellers says: “My parents have always talked to me about the Orangeburg Massacre. I am pretty sure it was whispered to me when I was in my belly.” The massacre took place when approximately 200 demonstrators showed up to protest segregation at a bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Twenty-seven people were injured by law enforcement officers, and three were killed. Bakari’s father, the Reverend Cleveland Sellers, was arrested for failure to disperse and sentenced to seven months in prison.
Rather than dissuading the elder Sellers from seeking racial justice, the sentence emboldened him to continue the fight, and Bakari, who was born in 1984, carries the family torch. When elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 2006, he was, at the age of twenty-two, the youngest African American elected official in the country. He lost in his 2014 run for Lieutenant Governor, but not for lack of strategizing against uphill odds.
At the center of My Vanishing Country is Sellers’ small and failing hometown of Denmark, South Carolina. He clearly loves the place and its people, but Denmark also represents “the perfect example of what’s happening in the forgotten rural Black Belt, a term once used to label a section of the country known for its dark, rich soil. Now, however, it describes a chain of connecting states known as the nation’s largest contiguous thread of poverty.” There’s no hospital in Denmark, or anywhere close. The water is bad. Economic opportunity is negligible.
Sellers, who writes a crisp, clean prose with plenty of concrete details to support his arguments, has much to say about how the Black Belt might be saved, but he is no idealist. Having worked in the South Carolina legislature, he realizes that the investment—both public and private—necessary to rejuvenate the rural Black South is unlikely to materialize without a long and sustained fight.
A related and passionate concern of the author’s is the plight of young black men: “For many black males, anxiety is ground in a sense of self-directed anger and rage because our lives appear to be cyclical—to borrow from the rapper T.I., we find ourselves in a proverbial trap. From attending failing schools, to suffering from poor health, to seeing our loved ones gunned down, we feel like we can never get out of this trap.”
Towards the end of the book, we learn about his wife Ellen’s nearly fatal pregnancy, and the agony of waiting months for his infant daughter, Sadie, to receive a liver transplant. This is gripping stuff, shifting the focus from the political to the personal, and here the book feels more like a traditional memoir, with the writer’s naked self at its center.
That said, My Vanishing Country ultimately feels like a book by an aspiring politician. In the best memoirs, the authors tend to disclose and dissect their ethical failings and moral compromises.Sellers—wisely, perhaps—never fully crosses into that territory. This is a good book by a good writer, but politics cast a long shadow, and My Vanishing Country could have been better.