Bakari Sellers on His New Kids' Book and Teaching His Twins About Black History Throughout the Year

Bakari Sellers talks to PEOPLE about his new picture book, Who Are Your People?, and how he wants to pass on the legacy of activism to his 3-year-old twins

Bakari Sellers Instagram
Bakari Sellers with his family. Photo: Bakari Sellers/Instagram

"Who are your people?"

This question is both the title and premise behind Bakari Sellers' debut children's book, Who Are Your People?, which published last month.

The former South Carolina congressman and CNN commentator wants to teach young Black readers about their history. It's a lesson he teaches his own kids — 3-year-old twins Sadie and Stokely, who are the inspiration behind the picture book — on a regular basis.

"I'm a firm believer in representation and the value of representation," Sellers, 37, tells PEOPLE. "I ascribe to the notion that you can't teach a kid that they can be a Black doctor if they've never seen a Black doctor. Or you can't teach a kid that they can be a Black scientist if they've never seen a Black scientist.

"So, in Who Are Your People?, I wanted to lay out in some very broad terms who our people were and show them the images of greatness in the clouds and overcoming of the cotton fields," he continues. "[I want] to show our people are strong people, who accomplish so much. And hopefully trigger young readers and individuals to realize that they can accomplish so much in this world."

Who Are Your People? follows Sellers and his twins as he teaches them about the history of Black Americans. He reflects on the past and present. There are a range of images, from enslaved people in cotton fields in the pre-Civil War South and the beginning of the sit-in movement at Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, to the presidential campaign of future President Barack Obama in 2008, and contemporary gatherings that highlight the importance of community. The picture book is illustrated by Reggie Brown and was first released by Quill Tree Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in January.

Bakari Sellers

"Your people were trailblazers who changed laws and broke records," writes Sellers in Who Are Your People?. "Today we stand on their shoulders."

In 2020, Sellers released his bestselling memoir, My Vanishing Country. Now, he's translated his central message from his memoir into a book for young readers.

"I think that from My Vanishing Country to Who Are Your People?, the theme is that you stand on the shoulders of great heroes and heroines," he says. "And this may sound kind of pie in the sky or naive, but I'm a firm believer in the power of dreaming, dreaming big dreams, and dreaming with your eyes open."

Sellers reads to his kids every night. Right now, a book of numbers trumps Who Are Your People? on the twins' reading list. (Sellers shares Sadie and Stokely with his wife, Ellen Rucker Sellers, co-founder of the haircare line Rucker Roots. Sellers is also stepdad to her daughter, Kai.)

"It's not their favorite book just yet," Sellers says. "They like the fact that they're on the cover and in the pages, but they really love their number book right now. That's their go-to. They pick that first and then they pick Who Are Your People? second."

Sellers, whose father is civil rights activist Dr. Cleveland Sellers Jr., wants to pass on the legacy of activism to his own kids. (In 2006, Sellers also made history when he became the youngest member of the South Carolina state legislator when he was 22.)

"I want them to know the power of their last name, the power of Sellers, and the literal blood, and sweat, tears that went into that," he says. "I want them to understand the strength of the women in their life, from their mother, to their grandmother, all their aunts. I want them to know their grandfather, not just for buying the gifts that sometimes they don't need, that make a lot of noise in the house, but also his sacrifices... It's pretty cool to say, 'My granddad is a hero.' "

Bakari Sellers Cleveland Sellers
The author with his dad, Cleveland Sellers. Bakari Sellers/Instagram

The author says that he only has one request of his children: "You can go out and be anything you want to be," Sellers says, "as long as you remember that you have to attempt to help people along the way."

For Sellers, teaching his kids their history and the importance of being a "change agent" is an everyday occurrence — not something he reserves for Black History Month.

"We celebrate our Black history throughout," says Sellers. "I want them to be able to touch and smell and see and utilize all their senses in understanding their history, whether or not we're washing their hair and learning about Mary McLeod Bethune and hair care products. Or, whether or not my kids have a peanut allergy... I teach him about George Washington Carver and everything he did with the peanut."

These same intentions have inspired Who Are Our People?, which Sellers says has received some pushback from adults over some of the images. Sellers explains that the illustrations in his book are important because they convey "our shared history."

"It's our history of sacrifice and overcoming," he says. "And if you're afraid of that history, that's on you, but I'm going to do my best to continue to bring people together around that shared sacrifice and shared history."

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He has a similar response to the rise of book banning in school districts in conservative areas of the country. Books that address race, racism and feature LGBTQ characters have been targeted.

"It's frustrating and it's almost laughably ignorant because it's important for us to understand our history," Sellers explains.

"I find it the height of political dishonesty and intellectual dishonesty when you make a holiday out of Juneteenth," he adds, "but then you ban the books that teach you about why we have Juneteenth."

Sellers says that the best way to combat these type of "ignorant" acts — and violence, like the recent reports of bomb threats against HBCUs — is with books and "more competent" leadership.

"We need leaders on both sides who tone down the rhetoric and are more focused on bringing us together," he says. "We need a more free flow of debate and education. But, at the end of the day, we need to grant ourselves more grace and be willing to give others more grace as they learn about various things that they've been ignorant to."

He explains it's incredibly important for kids to start reading early on.

"When these young people grow up and are more inquisitive and curious about not only who they are, but who others are, that's how you have empathy," says Sellers. "That's how you build a country that flourishes and is inclusive for all."

Who Are Your People? is on sale now.

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