*The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not represent the College of Social Work or the University of South Carolina.*
Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kirk Foster talks with political commentator, author, attorney and University of South Carolina alum Bakari Sellers. The conversation covers a variety of topics including racial equity, voting rights, and Sellers personal experiences as the son of Civil Rights leader Cleveland Sellers.
Kirk Foster: This spring I hosted Bakari Sellers for a town hall conversation as part of a Book Club event. I found it to be a lively and engaging conversation about growing up in rural South Carolina as the son of Civil Rights leader Cleveland Sellers, about politics, about fatherhood, about being Black in 21st century America. It was my conversation with Bakari that actually inspired me to launch this podcast.
So this isn’t a typical podcast episode. We may have remastered this just a little bit. You’ll hear me pose questions from the audience, and you’ll hear Bakari’s children in the background. And I guess we’ve all gotten a little used to that background noise in this new era of online meetings. It’s also a little longer than my other episodes. But take a listen, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Kirk Foster: Good evening and welcome to this town hall with Bakari Sellers, CNN political commentator, author of the New York Times bestseller, “My Vanishing County: A Memoir,” champion for racial justice, attorney, father, husband, UofSC alumnus, and South Carolina native. The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the College of Social Work and the I DeQuincey Newman Institute for Peace and Social Justice welcome all of you to tonight's conversation.
I'm Kirk Foster, associate professor and associate dean, and I will be your moderator tonight. As we welcome Bakari to the college, we encourage you to type your questions in the Q&A box that you find on the screen, and we'll get to as many questions as possible. First, Bakari will have some opening remarks and then we'll enter into a time of conversation.
So, let us welcome Bakari Sellers. He was born into an activist family and his father, civil rights leader Cleveland Sellers, instilled core values in him to continue the tireless commitment to service. Bakari received his bachelor’s degree in African American Studies from Morehouse College and his Jurist Doctorate from the University of South Carolina School of Law. He currently practices law with the Strom Law Firm in Columbia, South Carolina, where he leads the firm's strategic communication and public affairs team and consults on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Kirk Foster: Bakari made history in the 2006 South Carolina State Legislature as the youngest African American elected official in the nation at the age of 22. In 2014, he was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in South Carolina, and he's worked for U.S. Congressman James Clyburn and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. Sellers served on President Obama’s South Carolina steering committee, and he was named to one of Time Magazine's 40 Under 40 and the Route 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans in 2015 and the HBCU Top 30 Under 30 in July 2014.
Bakari is a nationally sought-after speaker, having spoken at the 2008 and 2016 Democratic National Convention. Sellers is married to his wife, Dr. Ellen Rucker Sellers and father to twins. Bakari Sellers, we welcome you to tonight's event.
Bakari Sellers: Thank you so much Kirk for having me in that great introduction. I'm going to have to apologize beforehand because you will probably hear Sadie and Stokely throughout the evening in the background as they are wide open before their nap time or bedtime in a couple of hours.
I am from the big city of Denmark, South Carolina, not far from where many of you all sit today, albeit virtually. I call it a big city where we have three whole stop lights and a blinking light. Very proud to be from Denmark. My mom and dad would always tell me that the two most important words in the English language are the words ‘thank you.’ They're not nearly said enough and so I had to say thank you particularly to you Kirk but even more importantly to the ladies who made this possible; to Michelle and Ja-Nae. I just want to say thank you so much for your hard work and your diligence. Thank you for working with me to come here today and thank you for your vision for what the I. DeQuincey Newman Institute for Peace and Social Justice and what the entire College of Social Work should look like and how it should be a living, breathing memoriam to such a great man.
I grew up on the campus of University of South Carolina uniquely enough back when the African American Studies department was in Gambrell Hall. Not sure how many people remember that. Then it moved over to Flint Hall when my father was both a professor and then director of African American Studies. Shout out to Bobby Donaldson who is a hero to us all.
Bakari Sellers: But tonight, just briefly before we enter into Q&A, or have an opportunity to have a more active or interactive dialogue, I found it to be important that we start by discussing where we are as a country. This has been one of the more weird convergences of historical moments to happen in one year. To happen in one instance. What do I mean by that? I mean that you have 1918-1919 where you have a great flu meets 1928-1929 where you have volatility in the markets and economic depression. Recession means 1968 where you have social justice unrest. Do you think about 68? You had February 8 the Orangeburg Massacre, April 4 the assassination of King. In June of that year, you had the assassination of RFK. You have many black soldiers coming home from a war that they felt as if, even when they came home, they were still being treated like second-class citizens. And the country, especially if you talked to Tom Brokaw, he wrote a book entitled, "Boom 1968," the Country in 68 was becoming untethered.
And you see those same instances, those same circumstances: you have coronavirus, which is ravaging our communities from the both a public health and economic perspective. You have the volatility in the market, whether or not you're talking about GameStop or the immense poverty we have throughout this country. And then you have the racial unrest or the racial reckoning, neither of those words do I like particularly much because it makes it seem as if it's a sudden phenomenon when the issue of race has been on the forefront of our American conscience for very long period of time, whether or not we addressed it or not is something totally different.
And so here I sit before you today a son of the South. I sit before you today somebody who at 20 years old told my mom and dad I was going to run for the South Carolina State House of Representatives, and I announced the campaign against somebody who was 82 years old and had been in office for 26 years, fundamentally believing that I could dream with my eyes open. My first, well my only eight years in office, when I would need to take a break, I would have to go outside and take a deep breath under the auspices of the Confederate flag. That was our normalcy. I had a sense of pride standing next to Don Lemon. I had just been hired by CNN; watching that flag come down.
There two remembrances I have of that very weird nuance or three remembrances I have of that very weird nuance of South Carolina history. The first is participating in a march from Charleston to Columbia with my dad back in 2000 to take the flag down. I wasn't real keen about marches cause I knew the flag was still going to be up. But little did I know that it was going to lay the groundwork and foundation in action for years later for it to come down - shout out to Joe Riley. I remember we were marching, and we got all the way to the Blossom Street Bridge and Darius Rucker and Hootie & the Blowfish got in front of us. I love Darius too... I tell him that story; that was a funny one. I was like 'Man, y'all ain't been walking with us this whole way.' But they got in front of us at the end. But everybody was a part of that and for them to utilize their privilege and platform to speak to the flag coming down even back in 2000 was pretty dope.
Bakari Sellers: That's one. Two was the nuance that I remember my father not being at the flag coming down ceremony, if that's what you want to call it. He was actually in Kiawah Island having vacation, and he said that, I'll never forget, he said now it's our movement; it's our time. He had his feet up and he was resting the work of his generation was I don't want to say complete, but the work of his generation was something that was done which led to this moment and he was Okay with passing that baton believing it to be in safe hands.
The third and most important, probably the most consequential realization that I've had about that flag coming down is that every ounce of political change we've ever had in this country, from the flag coming down to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, has been because of Black blood that is flowing through the streets of this country. And I think that right now we're at this very interesting precipice where people are confusing patriotism with prejudice. And I remind everybody from Rick Santorum to members of the South Carolina General Assembly and bloggers and everything else, that I feel every right to push this country, which I believe to be an imperfect union to be more perfect, because the blood of my family literally runs through the soil of this great country. Not only was my grandfather a veteran like many folks, but you know, my father was shot February 8, 1968.
And I wrote about all of these things Kirk, and I'm sure we'll get into it. I wrote about all of these things in a book that I never thought would do as well as it did. I got turned down over 30 times. I'm sure we'll get into that. But it's now sold 80,000 copies, which isn't bad, and we have a new children's book coming out in January of next year and then we have another adult book coming out in the latter part of next year. It's just been an amazing experience. I would never guess as I was sitting in the old law school where we couldn't drink the water and we had no windows. I would say that it was a block away from Sandy's, which y'all got rid of the rid of the best restaurant in Columbia by getting rid of that Sandy's. I would say, honestly, I never thought when I was sitting in those seats: one would I be on TV full-time as I am now giving my opinion on the day's topics. And two, I never thought I would be an author. My father was an author, and I always wanted to do it, but I recognized the difficulty thereof and so I never thought I would probably be sitting in a chair like I am today. I'm very proud of the University of South Carolina. I'm proud of Morehouse College. I'm proud of my institutions which I went to because, but for them, I wouldn't be here. But for women like Shirley Mills who worked at the institution for very long period of time. But for Harris Pastides. I recognize all of those individuals, Dean Powell and Dean Wilcox, the former deans of the law school.
And so, I guess as we sit here today it's a challenging time. It's one where social media and the 24-hour cable news has put us in a position where we only seek out news and opinions that reinforce our own. And we no longer have conversations with one another. We no longer prod each other. And this was something that was a virtue of the General Assembly when I was there is that we all knew each other. We wanted to know each other. We all knew each other's families. It was something... it seems like it was a long-ago political environment that I came up in that's no more. And so, the question is how do we get there? And hopefully we can dig into that a little bit today. I hope that people ask questions, and I hope that people ask questions that they've been wanting to know and don't be fearful. There isn't such thing as stupid questions, regardless of what your professor may tell you on campus. But there is such thing as stupid questions; we'll tackle those and answer those as well. But I hope people ask questions so we can have a robust, interesting dynamic dialogue about not just how far we've come, but where do we go from here. I think it's very important for us to tell a story about George Elmore, who in 1946, is the reason we can register to vote, who was from lower Richland, South Carolina. I think it's very important for us to tell the story about Sarah Mae Fleming, who sat down on a bus right there on Main Street in Columbia 17 months before Rosa Parks. I think it's very important for us to tell the story of hearing Eliza Briggs, who laid the foundation for Brown vs. Board of Education when they were in Clarendon County with the first case that that was filed.
I see here today the boy, the son of Cleve Sellers. When I go to Denmark, they call me little CL. Still, I think it's important we talk about the lives of Henry Smith Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton. And so I want to get through all of and just talk about my analysis, my writing, my vanishing country, and hopefully come out of here myself refreshed optimistic, looking towards the future and everyone else having a challenge going back to their dorm or their home or wherever they may be and thinking about this country critically and thinking about this a little more nuanced and challenging what they came into this town hall and the views they came into this town hall with. With that Kirk, I'll turn it back over to you. Your job is to be and do your best Anderson Cooper impersonation, and let's have a really good discussion.
Kirk Foster: I will, thank you Bakari I appreciate that. I will do my best Anderson Cooper impression, and the closest that I will get is my glasses, which are not quite like his. So, this wasn't a question that I planned to start with, but this is the question that I will because it's picking up where you left off and that is, what has vanished as you as you thought about your time growing up in Denmark. Thinking about your time serving not only the people of your district but also the people of South Carolina. As you have thought about your time helping to shape the narrative on a national level. What has vanished; what is your country, of our country, that is vanishing?
Bakari Sellers: So that's a good question and that answer is twofold. The first thing that I'll tell you is that from a micro level, growing up in Denmark, and people may not know this or recall this, if you read it, it's in the first chapter or two when my introduction in the first chapter when I talk about the bustling economy that was Denmark. It was one of these cities along (U.S. Route) 321 because people have to remember 321 was the main drag as they say between New York and Miami before (Interstate) 95 came through. And Denmark was unique because it had railroad tracks that went north, south, east and west, which was very rare for town during that time. And so, after NAFTA in the early 90s which we know devastated and took away many of our textile mills in manufacturing plants. And there was this new political imperative, and I have to call it such to just fundamentally ignore these rural areas from Columbia to Washington D.C. I mean the central areas of power right now in the state are always... When I was in the legislature it was Greenville, at one point then the power went to Charleston, now the power is in Florence with Hugh Leatherman and Jay Lucas. But back in the day it centralized, and the power was right there in Bamberg, Barnwell County. They used to call it the Barnwell mafia down there. And you had the speaker of the house, the president of the senate, the chief justice of the Supreme Court. And you had a distinct focus on the rural South that no longer exists. From a very tangible level, I mean all you need to do is go to Main streets throughout these rural towns in rural areas and you'll see an economy that once was bustling. We used to have small businesses. The doors were all open; have now been boarded up. We had a five and dime store, appliance store, had a bank right there on Main Street, and a theater right there that people could go in and use. We had Mr. Robinson's music store right there and Chinese food restaurant, Neely's appliance and the Wee Bakery. Anybody from small town South Carolina can visualize in their minds what was there versus what's not today. And then you overlay that with the corridor of shame which I'm not directly input on the footprint of that has been around my entire 36 years of living, which is a tragedy. You think about the fact that our hospitals are closing in the poor rural South. You think about the fact that in Denmark we don't even have potable water. You can't help but to believe these areas they once were bustling are vanishing.
And from a macro level, just the promises of this country. I say just like it's simple, but the promises of not just of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Kirk, but those ideals that many people in my generation and Generation Z still hold to be true, like love and peace and truth and justice seem to be fleeting. All you have to do is look at January 6 and those individuals were held out to be patriots. Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump said we love you; we support you, we're glad you're here. Whereas Kenny Stills, Colin Kaepernick professional athletes who take a knee because they are fighting back against injustice is our view to be b*** ****. So, we live in an interesting time where, this is the reclaim language I guess, your communications teachers may say that this is Okay or maybe a faux pas, but we have to take back our country, right? This is a time where we have to reimagine what this country should be and ensure that these words are no longer fleeting.
Kirk Foster: The phrase, 'take back our country' is particularly challenging right now because that was the mantra of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6. That is the mantra of so many other folks, as Victoria asked in the Q&A, what does it mean? What does this mean for us: take back our country in the current climate and what is the road map to do that, especially when it is couched in this extremist language of our country was stolen from us. I think we really began to see this transition between Obama’s first term and second term those counties across the Rust Belt began to shift from Democratic to Republican. So, I just put that out there for you.
Bakari Sellers: I use the phrase purposefully and intentionally so that it jars people, and they begin to think about it. And they're like, 'Okay, so what was our country? Let's talk about that.' My friend Angela Rye would always say on TV and it's a true statement. She said that 'we built this country for free.' It was interesting watching individuals storm the Capitol. Not that paramilitary forces that went in first but kind of the stragglers who went in and they were saying, 'We built this.' And that frustrated me because it was historical. You really didn't build this. Let's actually back up and talk about this. Let's talk about the people who designed and built Washington D.C. or let alone this entire country and built it for free.
And so, I just think that I want to re-imagine what this country should be. When we talk about policing, re-imagining what the role of law enforcement is; re-imagining how we educate our children. I think curriculum is relatively violent in the way that we educate children today. We have to re-imagine that. But when you throw out verbs and words and verbiage like take back our country, I want it to be jarring. I want people to understand that this truly is a battle as Joe Biden eloquently said on the stump, 'This is a battle for the soul of who we are.' And the reason I say it's a battle is because people don't want that tension point. I'm not saying that this is a violent war, but I am saying that this is a battle and people don't like that point of tension. What do I mean by that? People want us to forgive and get over it and start healing. But nobody ever wants atonement or accountability. It's weird, especially Black folk in this country always put in a position where we must forgive. When are you guys going to forgive? When are you going to heal? And I'm like no, ‘When are you going to apologize? When are you going to atone? When are we going to have justice? When are we going to have accountability?’ Because I don't believe you can get to the healing portion of the conversation without the atonement portion of the conversation, which I think is so very important.
Kirk Foster: You talk in the book about role modeling and being the importance as a Black man in this country in the 21st century of being a role model. And as you were talking about this re-imagining battle and this standing up for accountability; I have watched on and off this week the impeachment trial, and I'm struck by even our own elected senators who want to move on and don't feel or at least don't advocate that we should have any accountability at the federal and want to move on. But the reality is moving on is a privilege.
Bakari Sellers: That's a good point; We don't all enjoy.
Kirk Foster: Bakari, it's not lost on me that you and I are talking just three days after the 53rd anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre. And even without reading your book, we all know that this event played significantly in your life and your family's life. One of the other things I was struck by is that your dad's story as a Black man in America, one with the prison record; as you say no driver’s license, living in an area with very few job and economic opportunities. This isn't dissimilar from many African American today over a half century later. And as I was thinking about this, thinking about our conversation, I also remember very vividly, because I was watching "New Day," when you were on talking about George Floyd. And I can hear those words; it was very visceral, very touching, if I can say it that way, moment on CNN that day. And you said it's hard to be Black in this country when your life is not valued. And so, I was left thinking, where do we go from here? As we think about policy at the local level, the state level, the federal level and what needs to be done to ensure justice and to create equity.
Bakari Sellers: That's a big question. I was just joking when I said act like Anderson Cooper. That's a really big, bold question; one that would probably take an hour to kind of deconstruct and fill out. I would love to hear some other people chime in with the answer to the question, 'Where do we go from here?'
So, I will break it down like this and answer a few questions that you kind of put into one. One, I think the greatest tragedy of Orangeburg even 53 years later is that we know Kent State to a certain degree; we know Jackson State but still people don't know Orangeburg. We don't know the names. These names should be known by every South Carolina student - Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton. Three black men who were killed unarmed by law enforcement February 8th of 1968.
And so, you kind of start from there. And for me that's where... of course my father is a part of the Emmett Till generation. The story actually dates back to 1955 when he first saw the picture of Emmett Till in Ebony magazine. But you start from there. You understand the toil; you understand the trials and tribulations. I remember standing in front of a church back when Melissa Harris Perry was the Saturday and Sunday morning anchor on MSNBC. Melissa was interviewing myself and my dad. It was in June of 2015 after the Charleston massacre and my dad at the time was 70 and i was 30. And I remember echoing to her that here we stand, my dad is 70 and I'm 30, and we're having too many of the same shared experiences. And when you unpack that i think that's the indictment of our country - that my father had Emmett (Till) and Medgar (Evers). My father had Henry (Smith) and Sam (Hammond) and Delano (Middleton). I have Keith (Lamont), Walter (Scott), Eric Garner, Tamir (Rice). I have George Floyd, my father had four little girls in the 16th street Baptist church. I have the Charleston massacre and the Emmanuel Nine.
You know when you think about the similarities - this cyclical trauma or proverbial stages of grief that being Black in this country represent become pretty clear and sometimes suffocating and overwhelming, the kind of weird part about George Floyd is that the world saw it. George Floyd is more eerily reminiscent of Emmett Till than anything else because Mamie Till, his mother, decided she was going to have an open casket so that the world could see what race and xenophobia had done to her son. George would just happen to be recorded screaming for his mother being choked for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Both of which were in unique position to awake the consciousness of a country. What we saw in 55 was that there was a black consciousness that was awakened. And I think you saw that as well. The question is: There are a lot of people who are more engaged; how long will that remain? That's the question of the year; like where do we go from here is like... all right I mean I never really think often that I'll be quoting Ronald Reagan but here we are. But 'trust would verify.' Reagan said it all the time, especially when it came to foreign policy and that's where we are with institutions and groups and people. It took us seven years just to get some white folk to say 'Black lives matter.' Mitt Romney was walking in the streets of Washington, D.C. saying 'Black lives matter,' so it's not nothing. But we have to trust and verify to see if that momentum continues.
I recognize as a father now that the lens is a little different for me because the movement for me was a very selfless undertaking. When you have children it becomes very selfish, meaning that you'll do absolutely anything you can to ensure that your children have the ability to love, live, to understand what peace is, to understand what justice is. You will absolutely do everything possible to ensure that they live that life that they may not have right now. And lastly, I can't answer your question of where do we go from here, but I can tell you what I hope it looks like. I have a 15-year-old daughter as well, my stepdaughter, and she protested a lot this summer. I always tell folks that i wish she could be like Baron Trump. I wish he could just not have to go out and wave a sign that reaffirmed the basic tenets of her humanity. Instead, I wish she could just be 15. So, you find yourself in these really weird conflicting scenarios being a parent, but you understand that your Black child - there are many in this country who do not give them the basic fundamental benefit of their humanity and that's what the fight is about.
Kirk Foster: Yeah, I think that sort of segues well into one the things that reading your book reminded me of. It was this voter mobilization, and that's part of I think what a little bit of what you were just saying with respect to this awakening and how many people will remain engaged. One of the things that we undertook at the college last fall student-led effort was around voter education, voter mobilization. And so complete props to those students that worked tirelessly to get that information out and to ensure people had fair access to the polls.
But you know, access to the ballot box is such an important part of creating a more equitable and just union. And we've seen lots of things play out in this country leading up to the November election and then it's been virtually non-stop. Literally as we are in the impeachment trial it just continues to go on. But thinking about the voter mobilization and access to the ballot box, we saw something pretty amazing happen in Georgia this last time around where for the first time in a generation, Georgians voted for a Democratic president and then elected two Democratic senators. But we also know that there has been a systematic effort to disenfranchise millions of voters who voted earlier, mailed in their ballots, and Pew research reported that 39% of Black voters cast in-person ballots early or prior to November 3. And these votes are where part of what was being debated as legitimate or illegitimate. We kept being inundated with these messages that those who voted early or those who mailed in their ballots did so illegitimately. But one of the things that you argue in your book is that we're getting there, right? So, we've made progress over time and we are getting there. It's this Wesleyan notion that we're always on a path to perfection. So, i would ask you in sort of this rambling diatribe of mine, does the Georgia election point to a new era of voter immobilization or as you might say, an awakening among African Americans to understand that a large part of the community's power rests in the ballot box?
Bakari Sellers: So yes, to the first part; no to the awakening of African Americans because you usually see African Americans turn out in a large number across the board, even overcoming many instances of voter suppression, etc. That question was actually really good. It was decently rambling, so you went from Anderson to Chris Cuomo pretty quickly.
Kirk Foster: Those are who I watch, so they're both rubbing off on me.
Bakari Sellers: But it was a good question, it really was. In Georgia, it was the first time a Democrat had been elected since 1992 when they voted for Bill Clinton. This is going to be really, really political sciency, so I'm sorry. But Georgia has showed something that Democratic party politicians and machines should understand more so than anything else. For a very long period of time, Democrats have focused on cultivating candidates and they want a really nice-looking white guy. It'd be good if he had some military experience, probably a millennial, beautiful wife and kids, business background, kind of moderate not too far leaning to the left, looks good on a mail piece and we'll roll them out. That's cool, I mean those are good candidates to. But the biggest problem, and what we saw in Georgia, was that there was more time spent cultivating a voter base than cultivating a particular candidate. And that is going precinct-by-precinct, sub-precinct-by-sub-precinct, mobilizing, engaging and organizing those areas so you know where to go when it's election time to get information to take to your family, in your community, church captains, school captains, PTA captains.
You had this structural foundation in place and then you also had culturally, and this was like a revelation for the media, so watching the media cover it was wild. But you then had these institutions, like the Divine Nine sororities and fraternities that played a role. You had the links in Jack and Jill that played a role, you had your Historically Black Colleges and Universities, particularly in Atlanta and Chatham County, and Savannah to play a role, in Augusta with paying college in Augusta State. So, you had these cultural forces that have been for a very long time; it's like the secret sauce everybody finally got a chance to see it in action right, and it just worked perfectly.
Now I was somebody who wouldn't have bet on Georgia prior to the runoff. I thought Georgia was going to show us true colors and Georgia be Indiana, and people were like Indiana? Bakari, it makes no sense. Well in 2008 Barack Obama won Indiana; people forget that. Then Indiana went back to being Indiana pretty quickly. So, I thought that Joe Biden would win Georgia and then Georgia would revert. But what we're seeing across the Sunbelt, from Arizona all the way to Georgia, is a changing in demographics and that's very important. So, the 2022 gubernatorial races are going to be something to watch and without Donald Trump on the ballot, who turns out, who's a turnout mechanism for the Republican party is going to be fascinating to see. But here we are. I think Georgia is the star and hopefully it has other states around it looking at how they did it in Georgia.
Bakari Sellers: Also, let me state this. There is a big difference between South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia. There's a huge difference. The reason that North Carolina, Virginia and now Georgia are more purple than South Carolina has a lot to do with demographics. When you look in Virginia for example, you not only have Richmond, but you have the northern part of Virginia that are these bases for particularly white, college educated voters. When you look at North Carolina and the bastion of higher education, you have Charlotte and the Research Triangle. When you look in Georgia, you see Atlanta and Chatham County. When you look into South Carolina, you don't have these bastions of higher education. You don't have these hubs of research, these hubs of technology that are drawing these particularly white, college educated voters to those areas. Charleston is probably the closest thing, and so we are still years, if not decades behind those places.
Kirk Foster: One of the things that you also talk about in your book is the changing role of the Black church in politics. You know, I read that almost as a lament, right? That you were lamenting the loss of that voice or how that voice has somehow modulated into a different voice. And so, where does the Black church fit into all this? And I raised the question because we hosted a couple weeks ago a book club in a similar format talking about your book and this question came up a couple of times. So, I'd like to hear your opinion on.
Bakari Sellers: I'm actually writing about that more. In the book, I was conscious not to flesh that out more because I didn't know how to. I've been thinking about that a lot, and I'm actually doing that as we speak. It is a lament, and I'm glad that you read that tone the way that you did. That was what it was. The church once was, and this is an over generalization; I talked to T.D. Jakes and Tyler Perry a lot about it. But it once was the bastion for activism. But it's been consumed by capitalism now. And it's who can have the biggest, who can have the shiniest, who can get the most people in, who can have the streams the best, who can have the best music. And that's cool, I like all of that. But I'm trying to figure out where you are Monday through Saturday playing those pivotal roles in the community that are necessary. And I'm trying to do some historical analysis of it, diagnose it, and then prescribe how we go to the future. There were not many prescriptions in this book in 'My Vanishing Country.' It was more of telling a story through the lens of my personal antidotes. The next book will be more prescriptive as we reimagine what the country should be.
Kirk Foster: Someone asked a question, ‘What do you think about Florida becoming more red?’
Bakari Sellers: Florida always Florida's. That ain't helping you much, but that is just what Florida does, okay? So, the elections in Florida are going to be close. This election got a little out of hand; it was a lot more red than we thought it was going to be, but it's going to teeter back and it's going to be close race. Florida is unique. Florida is three distinctly different states in one. Florida is like Southern Georgia, Southern Alabama up top. Florida is like touristy around I-4 in the middle and then the south of Florida is the most diverse place you'll ever be, mixed with uber conservative retirees.
Where people mess up though is people like to talk about the Hispanic vote in Florida. That sentence is one of the most intellectually lazy and dishonest sentences that you can ever have because it does not give the proper credit or weight to the various subsects and ethnicities and voting patterns that are Hispanic voters in Florida. We can spend an hour talking about the Cuban vote alone in Florida, like what year did they arrive - I can tell you a voting pattern. We can talk about the Cuban vote, the Nicaraguan vote, the Honduran vote being more conservative. We could talk about the Puerto Rican vote, the Dominican vote being more liberal. We could talk about all of these things. And then you move further over, and you look in Arizona where the Hispanic vote, which they were talking about Mexican American voters, turned out in huge swaths for Joe Biden. Whereas it was more 60-30 in Florida for those various ethnic groups.
So, you have to understand the Hispanic voter conundrum that we have in this country. We have to understand Florida and it's expensive and it's difficult, but Florida's always going to Florida - it's always going to be close.
Kirk Foster: Having lived in Tampa for a number of years, I will say Florida is its own world.
Bakari Sellers: And it depends on what part of Florida you in; what slice of the world you get.
Kirk Foster: So, Nate asks, in your opinion, how will democracy survive and/or how can this country move forward when so many members of the GOP have chosen white supremacy as its north star?
Bakari Sellers: You know, that's their cross to bear. The GOP has only won two popular votes since 1990, well 1988 to be specific. George H.W. Bush in 88, they won the popular vote and in 2004 with George W. Bush. Those are only popular votes. And to be more clear, they've lost seven out of the last eight popular votes. So, the country's moving further away from the Republican party. It's now the party of Marjorie Green Taylor or whatever. So, you know, I have my lane, and you know your mama say that you made your bed, so you got to lay in it or something like that. They made their bed, so they have to lay in it.
I think we learned a few things about democracy though, and democracy is very, very, very fragile. And I think that is what should come out of what we've seen the last four years. People who assault your fundamental tenants of democracy, from law enforcement to the media, and then subsect of social media, the military, all of these fundamental assaults. Democracy can only withstand but so much, and we saw that. People literally tried to have a coup in this country. It was a weird coup; it wasn't really planned but a lot of things ain't real well planned like that. But still, it was what it was, and you guys have seen those memes of spiderman looking back at spiderman, it's like who are you? And you saw some of that when you dealt with the images of Capitol law enforcement looking back at these rioters. You saw that a lot of them were law enforcement. There was one rioter who’s been arrested who was an FBI agent who had top secret clearance. First of all, this is how i look at things, and maybe I'm a little bit more common sense oriented than some, if I show up to a rally and somebody has zip ties, I'm at the wrong place. I don't want to be a part of zip tying anybody. They came with bad intentions, they came trying to kidnap, hurt, murder even members of the United States Congress, particularly Nancy Pelosi and maybe even a few Republicans. And I just think that individuals like Josh Hawley and Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz should have some accountability for that. But the problem is they won't. Their only mechanism for them to be accountable will be history.
Kirk Foster: Well said, there's nothing I can add to that. Switching gears perhaps a little bit, perhaps not that much, you spent some time in your book telling of the shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. Again, a time when racism was on display for the world to see; whereas you say in your book, a 21-year-old born in the 90s could have the same mindset and outlook of racists of the 50s and 60s. Victoria asked if you could tell us more about that time and how it altered you.
Bakari Sellers: It was surreal. I mean I tried to write it in the book as I wanted it to be as emotionally written and read, I guess as it was for me to live it. I was literally a mile from the shooting when it happened. I was at a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, and it was packed. Steve (Benjamin) was there; it was a Hillary Clinton fundraiser - it was huge; we raised like $200,000 or something crazy like that. I don't know if you all know the name of Akim Anastopoulo. You see those ads all the time, the big lawyer down in Charleston. Well, we were at his office, and we were leaving we got on (Interstate) 26 and however many law enforcement you've seen in one place, multiply that times 10. That's what was coming down the highway. You literally would have thought that the north was... it was the beginning of the war of northern aggression again, like they were coming to attack us again like they did it back in the day. And it was crazy. I was like, 'What in the world is going on?' And then we found out what was going on, and that night was a really emotional night. I just went back to Charleston the next day, and i was in Charleston for about two weeks. We were just trying to figure out what was going on. And I remember the president's speech, eulogy, let me not say speech, and he's saying, 'Amazing Grace,' and during that moment it was just peaceful calm that you thought maybe this country would turn a corner and be there. These nine people that died. Clem (Pickney) was laying in front of Barack Obama, the President of the United States, was singing.
And it was just this powerful moment that there was a unique weight that was lifted off my shoulders at that time. I really was refreshed after that, thinking that someone you loved did not die in vain; you were ready to go run through the wall for democracy and for this country. We were going to realize all of our true tenets and the values upon which we were founded, whether or not they were founded for us or not, but you were going to give those words life. And so, it was a very surreal type of experience with so much pain. I applaud (Governor) Nikki Haley for the way that she handled herself during that time. On good days she's a political pragmatist. On bad days, she's a political opportunist. She was at her very best being a human being during those moments. She was exhausted; she went to nine funerals.
And so, I just think about that often and realize that it happened in my lifetime. When people are like, 'Can we just stop talking about race; can we just move beyond it?' If I’m tired, I'm just like, 'Yeah, y'all can stop killing us.' But two, I'm like, 'You do realize we just had a church shooting five years ago, right?' You murdered a man who was praying. He invited you in to pray with him while his wife and daughter were in the office. It's so indicative of where we are as a country. That moment and George Floyd are really just a stain on our country over the past decade.
Kirk Foster: Kisha, who's a student at Johnson C. Smith up in Charlotte, asks 'How do we go forward when faced with the continued racism of today?'
Bakari Sellers: That's easy; we don't have any choice. I'm not telling you to not take a deep breath and not have moments of self-care because you need that. But at the end of the day, we don't have a choice; you can't stop. In the words of the Notorious B.I.G., the great American poet Christopher Wallace, 'You sleep when you die.' So, I think that when we look at our struggles versus those who've come before you, you realize that you know, it’s hard out here, and we have to raise kids and we have to go forth and we have to be an example and we have to lift while we climb. But we don't really have a choice either. We've been in this country 401 years now. But one of the things that we've always done is persevered, and that's why i love Charleston so much. Charleston, South Carolina to me and Tel Aviv (Israel); I always tell people Charleston and Tel Aviv are the two most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. It's a unique mix of history and culture. And it's emotional when you go to the Battery in Charleston and you literally walk the same steps that people who looked like you walked and came in on boats. You can still see the stones from where they were sold. You still have some of the churches and houses that were built during that time, the cobblestone roads in which they walked. Then you know they walked so you can too, and you can't get weary because there are generations that need you.
Kirk Foster: We have another question from the audience, a graduate of South Carolina State, who asks how did growing up in Orangeburg and attending HBCU's shape you and your writing?
Bakari Sellers: That's a good question. My kids now have the amazing choice that they can go to any school they want to go to in the entire country, but it must be an HBCU, right? It placed a crown above my head that i had to grow into. I'm still growing; I ain't there yet. It taught me that I could compete on any level. It was a level of expectation that was set. Growing up in Orangeburg at the time, Denmark and Orangeburg, because I'm from Denmark but went to school in Orangeburg. I'm a product of the proverb, 'It takes a village to raise a child,' and there were so many people that poured into me, which is the reason that I'm not far. It's the reason that we're building a house in Columbia. It's the reason that I give back to Bamberg and Orangeburg every chance I get. It's the reason that my political future is right there because there's so much work left to be done and growing up in that area taught me that we could be absolutely anything. But it's our job to give back as well.
Kirk Foster: A complete disclaimer, I had a research project funded by the National Science Foundation and some of my partners were at Spellman (College) and Morehouse (College). And I had the pleasure of leading a research seminar with some Morehouse men and some Spellman women, and it was just an absolutely wonderful experience to be part of those long traditions and watching those students grow and go off to graduate school. I would like to say that I at least have a little slice of HBCU experience.
Bakari Sellers: Thank you... we'll take it.
Kirk Foster: We've got a little less than five minutes, and I want to say you opened up your remarks by reminding us of the importance of thank you. And so, I want to thank you for being open about your own struggles with mental health. It's an important story to tell, and for all of us it's an important story to tell. And I think you know in my read of your book it was important, especially in your quest to be a role model for African American children. So, if you would, just talk to us a little bit about the importance of telling this story in a book that seemed to center around civil rights and race and democracy and, as you say, the winding dirt roads of South Carolina.
Bakari Sellers: Because it's an issue, as you said, that's not talked about a lot. But even more importantly, it's an issue that's necessary for us to tackle if we're going to be in this together and move forward. I talk about anxiety and my anxiety all the time. Me and Charlemagne, my good friend from Moncks Corner (South Carolina) who is one of the biggest celebrities we have out of the state right now, we try to make sure that we have these discussions as often as possible because other people are going through it to. And to kind of piggyback on what the last young lady asked, you’re no good to the movement if you're not physically, mentally and emotionally healthy. I try to make sure that people know it's okay to be mentally and emotionally healthy. For me it was the most cathartic or therapeutic.
You asked a good question; I want to narrow it down even more. I was speaking particularly to Black men. So, when you sit down and write a book everybody's like, 'So what's your audience?' That's the person your editor writes. And I'm like, 'This book was written for Black women.' And then the world changes because you never know when you're writing a book what's gonna happen. And then you realize that you write a book for the time, so it's meant for everybody during that time. But particularly that chapter when I wrote it in my head, it was so easy to write because it was my experiences. And people were like, 'Your mom was okay with you writing that?' I was like, 'Look, this entire book was my truth ain't there lie in there.' And people know how I am. Like I am going to tell you my truth always for better or for worse. It was an amazing, amazing experience. It was cathartic. It was therapeutic, and I think it was necessary. It's something that i talk about in its first conversation, and I hope that one person, if they see me and know that I have a beautiful family, great job, etc. but I still have issues with anxiety, they too can feel comfortable enough to go out and at least understand that they can talk to people other than their barber.
Kirk Foster: Awesome... The changing landscape of African American neighborhoods and the South, I can appreciate the history changing around you impacts your writing and your thinking. We have just a couple minutes left, and this is where i would like to end. You end your book, at least before the afterward, with these words: 'We all deserve to be free and equal.' And it's a powerful statement. I'm also reminded that you said that your goal in going into the State House in South Carolina was to "Shake some s*** up at the Capitol. Juxtaposing those two sets of words, what's our call to action?
Bakari Sellers: Our call to action is to live for others. Our call to action is to not be selfish in our struggle. Our call to action is to spend this time in quarantine that we are in, distant and apart, becoming stronger mentally and spiritually and physically and emotionally than we went in. But coming out of this, prepared to tackle the challenges of the day and being unafraid and unapologetic. That's first and foremost being unafraid and unapologetic of who you are and understanding who you are and then going out in this world tackling these issues that we're facing, especially the issues of race, the issues of poverty, probably 1A and 1B of the day. But understanding that you have to be selfless in that mission. And so, I ask people to lift up their voices. I want people to write, I want people, if they're in SGA or student government, to utilize their platform to create opportunities, not just on their campus but outside the gates. I ask people to be examples. I ask people to mobilize and organize their communities. I ask people to play a role in this democracy that we all know is participatory. And at the end of the day, I ask people not to give up.
Kirk Foster: I think that's a great way to round off evening, and we appreciate you being with us. On behalf of Dean Pitner and the College of Social Work, I would like to thank you Bakari and the audience for joining us tonight.
These conversations are great. We started these last fall and this has blossomed to something that we didn't imagine, and they are a tremendous amount of fun. They couldn't be possible without good conversation partners, so Bakari thank you for being a good conversation partner.
I also would like to thank as Bakari did, those whose behind the scenes work makes this event possible. Ja-Nae (Epps) and Victoria (Montgomery) and Joe and Michelle, all of you whose work makes the rest of us look good. I also want us to remember as Bakari reminds us in his book:
'Dirt road living is who we are, allowing us to understand early on that life can be slippery. But we figure out how to navigate the unpredictable paths, paths that can go from gentle to muddy and treacherous in minutes.'
So, I thank you all for joining us, and have a good night.