Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black
by Congressman James E. Clyburn (D-SC)
Foreword by Alfre Woodard
University of South Carolina Press
386 pages, Illustrated
Book Review by Kam Williams
“From his humble beginnings in Sumter, South Carolina to his prominence on the Washington, D.C. political scene as the third highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, U.S. Congressman James E. Clyburn has led an extraordinary life. In Blessed Experiences, Clyburn tells in his own inspirational words how an African-American boy from the Jim Crow-era South was able to beat the odds to achieve great success and become, as President Barack Obama describes him, ‘one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens.’"
-- Excerpted from the dust jacket
Whenever House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) calls a press conference, she is invariably accompanied at the podium by the next two ranking Democrats, namely, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Assistant Leader James Clyburn. Clyburn is a very visible and important historical figure as the first African-American to represent South Carolina in the House of Representatives since Reconstruction.
During his tenure there, he has also done stints as Majority Whip and as Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Still, not much has been known about his private life prior to the publication of Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black, an intimate autobiography which leaves you with a lasting impression of just who Representative Clyburn is as a person.
We learn, here, that he was born on July 21, 1940 in Sumter, South Carolina, the eldest son of Reverend Enos and Almeta Clyburn, a fundamentalist minister and beautician, respectively. A versatile talent, James played not only on his high school’s baseball and football teams, but played the clarinet and saxophone in school bands, and starred as the leading man in a school play.
At South Carolina State College, where he majored in history, he joined both a dance and theater troupe. Of far more consequence, however, he was arrested and convicted during his junior year as a member of the Orangeburg Seven, the student leaders who had organized a demonstration against segregated lunch counters.
With social activism and a dedication to justice thus seared into his bones, it is no surprise that he would eventually settle on a career in politics. Along the way, he met his life mate, Emily, to whom he has been married since 1961. They have three daughters, Angela, Mignon and Jennifer, two sons-in-law, and three grandchildren.
Besides focusing on family and his considerable achievements in Congress, Clyburn talks at great length about his deep roots in South Carolina. He considers the black Southern experience to be as deserving of recognition and respect as that of whites, which helps explain why he spearheaded the compromise whereby the Confederate battle flag was removed from the dome of the State of South Carolina’s capitol building.
Through it all, he has remained a humble and deeply religious man who is not above relying on Biblical verses for strength during times of adversity. That helps explain why he generously credits his success to “God’s good graces, several strokes of good luck, a caring and nurturing family, and a plethora of loyal and supportive friends.”
A most welcome memoir by a remarkable role model of unquestioned character.
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