Jenkins' Book Review – "My Vanishing Country, A Memoir" by Bakari Sellers

hello my name is dr keith jenkins vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion i want to begin by thanking friends and foundation of the rochester public library for extending to me the invitation to share just a few highlights about a book that i had an opportunity to read over the weekend written by bukhari sellers the book is entitled my vanishing country a memoir of course this is my marked up copy from the weekend in the midst of this global pandemic coped 19 pandemic and also the social justice issues related to black lives matter this book actually proves to be an excellent read particularly in these times because he addresses issues of health care and health care of profound importance to us particularly black and brown communities today but he also deals with some of the same issues of systemic racism that were being fought in the 50s and in the 60s that pulled or drew his father into this particular movement those same issues being fought today so i found this to be an absolutely refreshing read in today’s time i also find it very valuable particularly to college students because we can learn about organizations such as the student nonviolent coordinating committee an organization that not only was uh john lewis a member of and it led to him speaking at the famed 1963 march on washington but we learned that bakari seller’s father was also a member of this same organization and as we began to look at you know this organization and we began to look at other movements of students it seems very relevant for where we are today as we deal with black lives matter bakari does a great job at the beginning of this book and the introduction by giving us an understanding of the community and which he was raised he was raised in denmark south carolina he describes it in the text as a community of 3 400 souls nearly all african-american he goes on to talk about how he thought at one time based on the rumors of the city that this city was named after denmark vz and i loved reading about denmark vizi who plotted a slave revolt in 1822 and he led that rising but he ended up not being successful he would be captured and he would be put to death but it wasn’t named after him but we would learn later of a particular uh organization that was named after one denmark vesey we learn of shotgun houses and uh i hadn’t seen that term in a long time i also grew up in the south and arkansas and so i could relate to many of the things that sellers talked about in his introduction the shotgun houses he said primarily they were dilapidated shotgun houses and and there was a growing theory is that the name of these skinny homes which are no more than 12 feet wide comes from a style of house in west africa called shogun which means god’s house and so he gives us history and all throughout the text as you read it you get all of these nuggets of history these nuggets of valuable information that will prove very useful to you and understanding not only the culture and the south but also understanding some of our past and our background as he describes the city he describes it with empty downtowns that is denmark south carolina today he says a man from childhood standing outside and i realize that same man has been standing around there for 20 some years but he goes on to write that it was once bustling but it no longer has a hospital 40 years ago it would have been pulsing with energy and black life but what do we see you know in those 40 years ago denmark had a pickle factory a coca-cola bottling plant a furniture manufacturing company people of all trades he talks about bricklayers and technicians construction workers bankers bakers painters cooks as well as black businesses of every kind

he says you had some wealth in a place that’s 85 percent black but he goes on to write that there were significant numbers of educated black people who have always lived in denmark and he attributes that to two historically black colleges and universities that reside in denmark south carolina denmark technical college and voorhees college where his father was president so the question for me became well what happened to denmark south carolina is it more progressive now than it was you know when you talk about empty downtowns and he says i believe that south carolina was devastated by the 1994 north american free trade agreement nafta he says the tex mill the textile mills started closing their doors and moving overseas people started leaving and with them all the jobs vanished so you have a different denmark um south carolina today some of the other things that that he describes were very humorous like we get the first glimpses in the introduction of his father he says that by the time my family arrived in denmark my father had already received a graduate degree from harvard university unfortunately a prison record kept him from getting jobs that he deserved and i will return to that particular part of the story because it is significant as we go forward we learned some information also about his mother who is from memphis she had a love-hate relationship with denmark she often discussed the difference between country and southern she believed that her father his father was country like denmark and how did bakari respond to that he says i on the other hand embraced being country like daddy right away i loved denmark so he takes great pride in being black uh and country and proud and then some of the things nuggets that you learn white bread he said it was a staple in every household primarily because it was cheap and he says and everyone knew if a fish bone gets stuck in your throat country folk know all you do is swallow a wad of white bred hole which pushes the offending bone downward we learned that you rode bikes or walked everywhere and so that was a big part of his background bakari himself grew to six feet five inches by age 15 and i said wow six feet five inches but he says of his basketball skills he was no lebron james he enjoyed uh his neighborhood and uh he enjoyed going to church he was sensitive as his mother described him he was sensitive uh but not uh soft and she said that was a quality that he also got from his father and he talked about you know going to church how he loved that but he says we went to church every sunday but when my grandparents were alive i dreaded going to church with them because that meant we had to attend two churches bethel ame and rome baptist church because my grandparents weirdly enough and i still don’t know why attended to churches so he writes and he captures that but the thing that stands out are values because you begin to understand the relationships that became very important in his family but you also come to understand the relationships that will become important amongst his friends and regarding those relationships and and those uh values that he learned he said he said grace before every meal he says even now i say grace i may not say it out loud but i always close my eyes and bow my head no matter who i’m with so we learn about him but the thing that stands out in that introduction to me is a story about emmett till and he goes back to 1955 money mississippi where a young boy at the age of 14 is killed by the name of emmett till and he focuses on mammy teal emmett’s mother who insisted on having an open casket at his funeral leading to the picture of her son’s mutilated face being published in jet magazine and other media that was what left a profound effect on his father and changed his father’s life thus impacting bakari’s life much later he says till’s death took hold of my father

so much so that at age 16 he was inspired to organize a sit-in demonstration at a local white restaurant in denmark he says my father’s inability to forget the face of a murdered black boy is also what motivates me to this day and what got my father in so much trouble in the first place you see in denmark people know they knew my last name for something else too that’s where my story begins and i want you to hold on to that remember his father was a harvard graduate but there was something that held him back and that something is dated to february 8 1968. it was in this day that uh about 200 black students at south carolina state college attempted to desegregate an all-white bowling alley in orangeburg south carolina and this particular protest led to the deaths of some of those students this was 1968 it says that they killed three young black men these were patrol officers who came on the scene at that time all age 18 or younger and he calls them by name samuel hammond jr delano middle middleton and henry smith and shot and wounded 28 others and all of this took place in just eight seconds and one of the people who was wounded that night was cleveland sellers that is bakari seller’s father he was a young married civil rights activist at the time and he says my daddy was arrested thrown in jail in a jail cell and was the only person to spend time in prison for instigating a riot that never happened and that’s when we get introduced and greater depth to bakari seller’s father and we see that he was a gentleman who was not just someone who was associated in a light way with the civil rights movement but he knew the players and he knew them intimately by name he says i am a child of the civil rights movement and so he begins bakari to name the aunts and uncles of the civil rights movement he referred to them as uncle jesse jackson uncle julian bond uncle stokely carmichael aunt kathleen cleaver and he continues to go through this list of names of individuals who knew his father intimately he says in 1968 my father was only 23 and a year older than bukhari was when he became a member of the south carolina house of representatives he had attended school at howard university but he dropped out of howard in order to work with us uh the student nonviolent coordinating committee in mississippi where he searched for three missing activists you can imagine who they were goodman swarner and cheney his roommate when he was at howard university was stokely carmichael so we learned that before his father left howard his roommate was stokely carmichael we also learned that his father’s friend and i thought this was just very wonderful his father’s friend actually officiated or presided over the small wedding ceremony of his father and his first wife that father’s friend was none other than reverend dr martin luther king jr and he held the wedding in the basement of the famous ebenezer baptist church in atlanta so we see those glimpses of the fathers and we see the father’s recollection of that incident in orangeburg south carolina he says when someone shattered the glass door of the bowling alley that they were protesting about 50 policemen rushed out swinging wooden batons and just slamming them down on dozens of coeds who ended up with lacerations across their heads and beatings across their backs my father remembers in some cases police were on either end holding the girls by their arms while another officer came down across their backs with batons so that’s the memory that he has regarding that particular incident and what does he say of that he says that the university’s public health researchers said people are wrongfully assuming that individual cops are out to get black people when we look at situations today he says rather the problem when you talk about some of the atrocities and the abuse

toward black people today with police officers the problems lies within all of society uh and how it has treated black people for centuries and he takes us on a history lesson of those centuries in the 1960s he says my father knew what could happen to someone like him accidents do happen all the time and and and when he looked at you know that history he was going through his father’s things and he found under books in his father’s library pictures there were pictures of his father standing with martin luther king jr one of him at the age of 18 sitting in the oval office with president lyndon baines johnson and there’s another photograph of his father with muhammad ali another with stokely carmichael and elijah muhammad several photos with dr king or with dad standing or sitting near uncle stokely or uncle julian so he knew these individuals by name and so we learn a lot about his father there’s another part they refer to the incident of this protest in orangeburg as the orangeburg massacre and it occurred two years before the well-known shooting at kent state university during which four white students were killed and two months before the assassination of martin luther king jr but the tragedy barely permeated the nation’s consciousness and police for that tragedy claimed that they were defending themselves even though they could not identify and no evidence could prove that even one student on the campus possessed a weapon that evening the officers sought to pin the calamity on one man and that one man was bakari seller’s father cleveland sellers and so that is the way that incident went down uh in terms of his father a few other things that he writes about he writes in that first chapter about 2015 and that was when uncle julian passed away and he says that his death hit my father hard they were contemporaries and true friends for 50 plus years but what you see is that his father got very involved at an extremely early age and had this ish situation pinned to him with the orangeburg massacre that resulted in him having a prison sentence and he said that from the time my father was arrested until he was pardoned in 1990 he was like a leper and we were like refugees his father though was eventually pardoned of that particular incident and he said but still despite that pardon some people in south carolina still put the blood and tragedy on his shoulders but there was a man there at the orangeburg massacre who looked like his father and that man’s name was henry smith he died on february 8th and he said you know the primary thing is that they looked alike and he wondered always if you know that gentleman uh they thought him to be cleveland sellers were they targeting to take him out at this particular time well one year later the police were cleared of any wrongdoing by a jury and just two hours so they were found not guilty of the crimes so he captures all of that and the first chapter of the book and then he writes 50 years later and this is extremely important he says and yet 50 years after cleveland sellers my father a professor college president civil rights activist was on the front lines of the civil rights struggle i find myself in a country that looks too much the same in my time in our time some of the most racist remarks come from the very top where the president himself panders to the worst in us to score points with a particular political demographic so he captures a lot of that information but then when you move into chapter 2 chapter 2 deals with black and forgotten and i think that this chapter stands out to me because chapter 2 focuses on poverty and he considered denmark part of the forgotten south and as he talks about poverty he begins to deal with this concept of poverty being passed down generationally he talks about the great migration of blacks from the south how they uh went up to chicago to philadelphia to new york and he said and the ones who were left

uh they they in and remained in the area they were referred to as country bombers and uh you know that’s what you begin to look at but as he talked about this idea of poverty being passed on he says passed down generationally and so we have 228 years of catching up to do and he says how is it passed on it’s passed on for many reasons he says unusually high incarceration rates education inequalities drugs segregation workplace discrimination and the lack of male role models and so he goes through this chapter and he deals with his friends you have to read about his friend pop you know he is one who you know did not have all the breaks that bukhari sellers had and so he struggled he had some tough times but he remains friends with pop and so we learn about that we learn about black versus white net worth in this country and so that is something else that he uh decides to focus on and so he talks about pop getting shot but by the time pop gets shot one of his dear friends he says he had already been stabbed arrested for selling drugs and spent more than a year in prison so he says pop’s life was typical of young guys coming out of denmark without their fathers at that particular time and so that was something that he alludes to 2012 he talks about how the only hospital that had been in denmark had actually closed his doors because of petty politics and a lack of funds but pop this friend of his would go on to get his ged would go on to attend college and to graduate from voorhees uh he was inducted into the alpha kappa mu honor society he would spend one semester working on his master’s degree at claflin university in orangeburg but remember that similarity that i said he had spent one year in prison after all that studying he writes and a college degree with honors pop who’s now 40 works for a company that makes kitchen sinks indoors and is paid eight dollars an hour so he talks about the burden of all of this on young people when you move into the latter parts of this chapter he begins to identify his friends and he introduces a term called jiving jiving uh what we recognize as jiving in denmark south carolina is playing the dozens wrecking signifying ragging but in south carolina we called it simply jiving and so he talks about his old friends one of his dear friends was a gentleman by the name of jared and jarrett would be the individual that he would later go off to college with now very interesting bakari skipped two grades so he would graduate and he would matriculate at college at the age of 16 and so he would matriculate at morehouse college and so he he writes in chapter three about the school days and the school days he captures his life at morehouse college and he you have to read this chapter to get a great feel for the morehouse mystique the school’s legacy the more house man and men like reverend dr martin luther king jr samuel l jackson spike lee and herman cain he writes about these individuals he writes about the orientation ceremony of all of them dressing in uniform alike and that was significant because he says you lose your individuality and become a class of men who are destined to leave all of that is captured in that third chapter he also talks about the houston boys who were only polo boots the dc guys who wore only two or three colors uh he went on to talk about the atlanta guys who were more laid-back the new yorkers with their massive white t-shirts and hats that were intentionally too big and the detroit uh guys who he says were the sharpest dressers of all he captures all of them and he says for he and jared they were both just country and so that’s what he looked at regarding them he also talks about another friend that he would meet there at uh morehouse named brandon childs and brandon childs said that he was at morehouse on a basketball scholarship well jiving uh bakari begins to pick at him saying you know if somebody looking like you got a basketball scholarship i know i can get one so he began to talk trash

you know at this young guy until he saw jared actually play and when he saw him play all the trash talking stopped at that point but two months and two being a student at morehouse we were faced with 9 11 and two planes crashed as he writes and to the twin towers in new york city on september 11 2001 and so he begins to talk about how he spent that first year he spent a lot of it partying he spent a lot of it you know you know not necessarily focus on his studies he ended up on academic probation he lost his academic scholarships he ended up getting in trouble for being at spelman past curfew and for those who do not know uh spelman is a sister school to morehouse it is an all-women school and then uh he changed majors and it was in the changing of majors that he ended up an african american studies there is so much that i could share about this book he would go after his first summer at morehouse to work in jim clyburn’s office now he found out that jared had gotten a job working in the summer at jim clyburn’s office so he wanted to work there also so he sought that out but he would discover along the way that there was no opening for him so he told his mother his dilemma what did his mother do she picked up the phone she called jim clyburn himself she says congressman clyburn who was former uh sumpter south carolina and he and his dad had been extremely you know close during the 1960s she said to him i want my son to be an intern and they hired him so he got his first job what is significant about that is that it was that first job where he began at age 17 now beginning his plan he says i was 17 years old this is found in chapter four when i started thinking about running for political office actually it was during that summer and congressman clyburn’s office on capitol hill that jared and i formally plotted my run for south carolina’s house of representatives well to say the least he would end up winning that particular uh seat at the age of 21 and so the planning that started when he was just coming out of his first year at morehouse working in jim clyburn’s office would pay off much later so you have to read through that as you get into uh chapter four and the making of a politician in chapter five now move on to chapter six that was when we see the introduction of president obama and president obama dreaming with my eyes open calls on him to actually endorse him in his run for president of the united states and bakari had some some stipulations on being being able to endorse him he says senator i said i would do so under two conditions one my mom gets an opportunity to volunteer for your campaign and two you visit my district and obama said to him i have no problem with doing either of those so we see that obama keeps that promise and he does visit and he gives a lot of clout to uh one bakari sellers bakari in the rest of the book he deals with so many different subject matters he deals with anxiety that he suffered and he deals with this whole idea of mental illness within the black community that some of us as black men would not talk about or deal with well he talks about his own anxiety and and how that fared for him but he ends the book with an incident and that incident taking place in charleston south carolina and when you deal with charleston south carolina learn about his friend by the name of clem reverend clemente and you need to read about him also because he was a dear friend but he was killed in that church of parishioners who had come together for bible study and at the end of the prayer a young man by the name of dylan opened fire on them killing them and klim one of those close friends was there and he was killed what i think i i like about uh bakari is that he deals with so many different issues he writes about his wife he writes about health care and some of the complications she had after giving birth to their twins and as he writes about all of this you see that the issues that we were wrestling with in the 60s that his father cleveland sellers wrestled with during that time are issues that we still wrestle with

today and so what is his call his call is to be a voice for the voiceless and so that is one thing that stands out about him and so i encourage you read my vanishing country a memoir bakari sellers wonderful read wonderful text i hope i’ve done justice to just skimming the surface and giving you some highlights from this book but i encourage the reading of it because i found it totally enjoyable to read totally educational and something that would be rewarding for not only you as a parent or an adult but for your children and grade school and for a teacher’s reading list if you’re considering books that capture this moment and our times thank you so much friends and foundation of rochester public library for extending me this invitation to just share with you in this very special way take care