Study Guide

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison Quotes

  • Transformation

    She wrote back two weeks later. She said that she forgave me and encouraged me to seek God's forgiveness, and I took her words to heart. It would be five long years before I reached the point when I could truly forgive myself. But I did, and today, I can't help but wonder if your godmother's care was the first real step in my transformation.(Prologue.21)

    Is being forgiven by someone the start of change for a lot of people? Shaka seems to think it was pretty significant for him.

    That was the routine. As long as there was a threat to my freedom, I acted like I was ready to change, but the moment I got free, I didn't care anymore. It would take ten years and a lot misfortune for me to understand that real change comes only when you are completely and thoroughly disgusted with your actions and the consequences that they produce.(2.14)

    Sounds like you've got to hit rock bottom before you can change. Is that true for everybody, or does it apply more in tough situations like the ones Shaka found himself in as a teenager?

    Like Dante journeying through theinferno, my life would forever be changed by the things I would witness and take part in—the violence of oppressed against oppressor, predator against prey, and the insane against the criminally insane.(2.28)

    Dante doesn't just journey through hell in the Inferno. He's also changed by the trip, and for the better. As ominous as this quote is, it gives us a faint glimmer of hope at a grim moment of the book. It lets us know that Shaka may be transformed for the better too.

    I vowed to find a way to be a father, even though I was in prison. This meant that I had to change my thinking. There could be no more settling for less in life. I could no longer think destructively about other Black males, and I could no longer justify shooting, beating, or selling drugsto those who looked like me. I had to reclaim my humanity and soften my heart so that I could be a voice of reason and wisdom for my boy. (10.55)

    Being a parent doesn't just make Shaka more concerned about his son. It makes him more concerned about his whole community.

    I had given up on myself, my parents, and my brothers and sisters—but I would be damned if I'd give up on my children. I was determined to fight against the side of me that didn't think I could be anything more than a thuggish criminal or a predator to my community […] No matter how many times I got knocked to the ground, I would get up over and over again, until I could stand strong as a proud African man and father. (10.56)

    Being a parent seems to change Shaka in a way that being a son, brother, and romantic partner didn't. Is there something about becoming a parent that really brings people face to face with themselves?

    But as much as I wanted to change, it would take eight years for me to have a true awakening and begin to grow into the fullness of my potential. Until then, my desire to change would do battle with the old instincts, angers, and fears I had carried into prison. (10.57)

    This quote might be the book in a nutshell—Shaka desperately wants to change, and he does. But it takes a long time to overcome the struggles of his past.

    With each book that they fed me, I felt a part of my soul growing and opening up to commune with my ancestors. I immersed myself in African history and imagined what it was like in ancient Kemet (which had been renamed Egypt by the Greeks). I thought about the pyramids, which have stood the test of time, and wondered how they had been engineered. I thought about Timbuktu and how that society had created a vast trove of knowledge that was the envy of the world. In the short time I was at Standish, I learned more about African history than I had ever learned during all of my years in school. (14.35)

    Shaka is transformed by learning how important African history is to the world. Is history transformative for everyone, or is this more specific to Shaka?

    My third stint at MR, beginning in 1992, was the most important leg of my journey through the belly of the beast. In the midst of daily stabbings, human despair, and overt racism, the man Shaka was born and the boy Jay was laid to rest. It was during this stretch that I would come to acknowledge things my father had been trying to teach me for years— that I was intelligent, that I possessed leadership qualities that could be used for good or bad, and that the choice was up to me. It was there at the Reformatory that I began to understand the power of empathy and human compassion.(14.53)

    Shaka has a lot going for him, in spite of the tough things in his background. But they don't do him much good until he stops and thinks about them—and until he learns to stop and think about others too.

    But real changes came when I started keeping a journal. Anytime I got angry at one of the other inmates, I would immediately grab a lined notepad and begin writing down what I wanted to do to him and why.(19.28)

    Writing genuinely transforms Shaka's life. It may even have saved it.

    It's hard to express how much this process of examination began to change me. Within the lined pages of my notepads, I got in touch with a part of me that didn't feel fear whenever something didn't go my way— a part of me that was capable of feeling compassion for the men around me. (19.30)

    Maybe Socrates was right about the examined life after all. It's nice how Shaka picks up the idea of reflection as transformation here, since he started the book out with famous quote from Socrates about the unexamined life not being worth living.

  • Justice and Judgment

    It was an irony that vexed us to no end. In jail and in prison, when a confidential informant makes a statement against an inmate, it's enough to find him or her guilty of any charge. But when we have witnesses who are capable of exonerating us, their testimony is no good.(1.13)

    Kind of ironic that the system which tries to administer justice runs by rules that seem unfair.

    The county jail's pecking order was as clear as it was unforgiving. From the lowest of the inmates to the highest reaches of the prison staff, life in jail was a real-life human experiment in the survival of the fittest. (4.24)

    Is a survival-of-the-fittest system just the consequence you face if you break the law? Or could the system be made fairer and safer while still restraining crime?

    This was one of the 'hood's many contradictions. Affluent white men were free to come into our community to buy drugs and sex as they pleased. If they got pulled over for soliciting, more often than not they were given a slap on the wrist and returned to the safety of the suburbs. But for us, the parks we had once played in as children were no longer safe, and the streets that had once been a source of pride were now forgotten cesspools that the city would rather forget. (9.4)

    This quote underlines how complex it is to work toward a just society. The problems in a particular community may relate to outside factors as well as to internal challenges.

    With each book that they fed me, I felt a part of my soul growing and opening up to commune with my ancestors. I immersed myself in African history and imagined what it was like in ancient Kemet (which had been renamed Egypt by the Greeks). I thought about the pyramids, which have stood the test of time, and wondered how they had been engineered. I thought about Timbuktu and how that society had created a vast trove of knowledge that was the envy of the world. In the short time I was at Standish, I learned more about African history than I had ever learned during all of my years in school. (14.35)

    Knowing that people like him made real contributions to society is a big part of what eventually helps Shaka want to give back to society too. Is part of having a just society showing how everyone can and does contribute to it?

    At Standish, we brothers from different organizations had kept to ourselves, but back at the Reformatory, I began reaching out to other crews because I felt that it was important to find common ground with the fifteen hundred young men who were sharing our space. We held different philosophical and theological views, but we had all come from the same hopeless backgrounds, and we were all caught in the gears of the same heartless machine.(14.56)

    It seems important that Shaka isn't just waiting for someone else to make the system better. Even as a prisoner, someone who has relatively little societal power, Shaka knows he can make a difference by connecting with others and trying to help them craft a better overall situation.

    I had acknowledged my guilt years before, but there was a difference between that and accepting responsibility for my actions. My son's words made me take that final step on my road to redemption. (19.61)

    Shaka definitely cares about the justice of systems, and he also deeply values individual responsibility. It's partly a moving letter from his own son that helps him take full responsibility for his own actions and his individual part to play in making a more just world.

    On that visit, we [Shaka and Ebony] discussed a wide range of subjects concerning life, love, and relationships. She shared with me her passion for urban gardening and how she believed it was necessary for Black people to have control over their own food supply, and I told her about my love of writing and my goals for life after prison. By the time our visit ended, we had discussed everything from privately owned prisons to the reasons behind the abundance of liquor stores, fast-food restaurants, and inferior grocery stores in predominately Black neighborhoods.(21.4)

    One reason Shaka is attracted to Ebony is her commitment to social justice. For her, justice isn't just about the legal system, though that's important. It's also about making sure Black people have access to healthy food and power to provide good things to their communities.

    And that's the thing about hope. In the moment when you feel it, it can seem foolish or sentimental or disconnected from reality. But hope knows that people change on a timeline that we can't predict. We can never know the power that a word of kindness or an act of forgiveness will have on the person who needs it most. (Afterword.14)

    Justice may involve philosophy and politics, but it's also about individuals keeping hope and kindness alive. For Shaka, that's not just an idea—other people's hope has been a key factor in his transformation.

    We traveled through Zone 8, the neighborhood where Yusef had grown up gangbanging, and continued west into Rosedale Park, a nearby enclave of upscale, middle-class families. As the team looked at the big, beautiful brick homes lining the streets, I talked about the many contradictions and inequalities in our city. (26.48)

    What causes the stark contrast between poverty and middle-class life in Detroit? Would improving the situation in one city provide hope for more equality elsewhere?

    Watching Sekou grow, I realized that the desires I had expressed to the parole board were real— more than anything in the world, my dream was to give our son a better world than the one Ebony and I had inherited. (26.32)

    This quote is a nice combination of seeing justice as about a whole community and seeing justice as about an individual's experience. It's a personal connection between Shaka and his new son Sekou that really brings home to him how much he wants to make the whole world better.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    I loved living in the streets. I loved the fast money, fast cars, and fast women. Above all, I loved the reputation I had earned in the 'hood.(2.15)

    It's kind of weird to hear someone say they loved living in the streets. But Shaka explains here why there's a lure to street life for some kids who do have other options.

    I learned that jail wasn't much different from the streets; it was a power-based environment where the only means of gaining respect were violence and money.(4.53)

    Hmmm. It's hard to see how prisoners are going to change in a system that looks just like the one where they committed their crimes. Does going to prison actually make some people more violent than they would have been otherwise?

    I had never thought about the fact that by getting locked up, I was also imprisoning everyone who loved or cared about me.(4.55)

    Imprisonment isn't just an individual thing. While Shaka's friends and family aren't literally in jail because of him, they're metaphorically held hostage as long as he's in jail.

    I found myself thinking about how I had arrived at this point in my life. Growing up, I never imagined that I would end up caged in a cell, living out my life like an animal. I'm too smart for this shit, I thought angrily as I stared up at the paint-chipped ceiling.(12.32)

    Shaka is smart, but it takes more than just brains for him to escape the actions that put him in prison. He needs real transformation of his whole self, not just his mind.

    At some point, all inmates begin to wonder if their existence is really a nightmare, from which at any moment they could wake up and be back home in their own beds. But as the years of your incarceration stretch on, you soon learn that prison is all too real. (12.33)

    Nobody likes the idea of prison, but it sounds even worse when Shaka describes what it's really like. Does his clear description of the experience change how we think about it?

    It was through these letters that I realized writing could serve as a means of escape. With a pencil and a piece of paper, it was almost like I could travel outside of prison and go wherever I desired. I could stand on the corner in my neighborhood, and no one could stop me. I could drive down the freeway to see my ex-girlfriend in Ohio, and the bars and wired fences couldn't hold me back. Writing was freedom, so I wrote till my fingers were sore.(12.36)

    When he's in prison, Shaka finds out that writing makes him feel free in a way not much else can do. What makes writing so powerful?

    Eventually, they sent me to the Maximum Security Facility at Standish, where a new level of hell awaited. (12.42)

    One of the great things Shaka does as a writer is to subtly weave in references to Dante's divine comedy. This is one of the moments when he compares his journey to Dante's travels through hell. It gets the reader's attention, and it suggests that Shaka, like Dante, is slowly transforming for the better through the experience. See Symbols for more.

    But this didn't mean that everything I learned or did in the Melanics was positive. This was still prison, still a place ruled by the law of the jungle. And it was through our organization that I became even more practiced in the art of calculated violence. (14.41)

    Prison life is full of weird and disturbing contradictions. Example? The Melanics provide Shaka with awesome community support, mentorship, and encouragement to grow in his spirituality and knowledge of African history. But because of the eat-or-be-eaten world of Maximum Security, they also feel like they have to organize to fight back with violence when someone hassles one of their members. It's a strange dynamic, and just one example of how the weird world of prison lands people in complicated situations.

    At Standish, we brothers from different organizations had kept to ourselves, but back at the Reformatory, I began reaching out to other crews because I felt that it was important to find common ground with the fifteen hundred young men who were sharing our space. We held different philosophical and theological views, but we had all come from the same hopeless backgrounds, and we were all caught in the gears of the same heartless machine.(14.56)

    Shaka eventually starts to turn his talents to connecting different organizations within a prison. It may not solve all the contradictions he experienced with the Melanic Brotherhood, but it's a step in the right direction. The fact that they're all stuck in the same place gives them some common ground to start with, at least.

    When I stepped outside and inhaled my first breath of freedom in nineteen years, I felt like a baby taking in air for the first time. The air tickled my lungs, and I smiled from deep within. I was officially afree man, and this time, I would do freedom the right way.(26.2)

    Shaka grows from seeing freedom as the chance to do whatever he wants to seeing freedom as the chance to contribute to his community.

  • Violence

    I had been at Wayne County Jail for six weeks, following my arrest and conviction for second-degree murder. In those six weeks, I had witnessed everything from rape and robbery to murder, and this was one more reminder that inmates had no shortage of creativity when it came to inflicting harm on other men. Little did I know, this was just beginning my education in the true meaning of violence. (1.22)

    Even after a few years of working with violent drug dealers, Shaka learns a lot more about violence in the prison system. Are other prisoners also learning more about violence in the very system that is supposed to help solve stop violence in society?

    That's what you did in the 'hood, jail, and the prison yard. If you and another male exchanged glances, you'd better be up to the challenge, or you would be considered weak. And in our world, the weak became prey.(2.16)

    Masculinity and conflict go together in a lot of Shaka's experience. We can't help but wonder if one reason he's eventually able to shake this expectation is his own father's example of love, respect, and responsibility.

    This kind of thinking is common among marginalized Black and Latino males. In the 'hood, the villain is the hero, the guy people look up to. So we hang out in front of liquor stores with plastic bags in our boxers and semiautomatics tucked into our waistbands, living out our version of the American dream.(2.19)

    This quote raises the question, "Just what is the American dream?" What version of the American dream would actually help people who feel left out of the standard story about American identity?

    From the streets of Detroit to the organized-crime families of Chicago, from the dirty South to the gang-infested neighborhoods of L.A. and New York, we all wear the mask. It is the one that says, "I am fearless, Idon't care, and I will destroy anything in my path, including myself." But all of us know that beneath this mask is a vulnerable boy whose heart has turned cold. (2.20)

    Why do kids from marginalized communities pretend not to care? Is it because they're afraid that what they actually care about will always be out of reach? And what would it take to change the situation?

    Like Dante journeying through theinferno, my life would forever be changed by the things I would witness and take part in—the violence of oppressed against oppressor, predator against prey, and the insane against the criminally insane.(2.28)

    The Inferno is basically about a journey through hell, and it's no accident that Shaka mentions it here. Like Dante, Shaka is about to see a lot of different horrible things.

    My heart fluttered like the broken wings of a bird. I was terrified. The cold, steel barrel pressing into my temple pressed into my consciousness a colder reality—at fourteen, I was about to die. (3.2)

    This moment is a key turning point in Shaka's story. He's terrified of losing his life when someone points a gun at him just a few weeks into his life as a drug dealer. Being threatened with violence is one of the things that encourages Shaka to become more violent himself—it's a grim cycle.

    My reality didn't feel real. I couldn't believe I was sitting in a cell with a stranger discussing the possibility of me spending the rest of my life in prison. I was supposed to be on my way to college. I was supposed to be following my dream of becoming a doctor—of becoming a healer, not a destroyer.(4.43)

    Shaka had other dreams before getting caught up in violence and choosing to act violently himself. Are those other dreams part of the reason he can find his way back to a different life eventually?

    To this day, I think those shots were a cover for what Coop really wanted to do, which was cry. His family had been threatened, and he had been made to bite the bullet that was meant to kill him. No man wants to live knowing his actions could've brought devastation on his family. (13.16)

    Shaka seems to be suggesting here that there might have been less violence in his old neighborhood if there had been less social stigma attached to men expressing their vulnerabilities through words or tears. It's an idea Shaka hints at often in Writing My Wrongs.

    That's why I'm asking you to envision a world where men and women aren't heldhostage to their pasts, where misdeeds and mistakes don't define you for the rest of your life. In an era of record incarcerations and a culture of violence, we can learn to love those who no longer love themselves. Together, we can begin to make things right.(Afterword, 16).

    This is how Shaka ends the book—with hope that violence doesn't need to define either American society or individual lives. We think it's significant that he invites the reader into that: it's something that takes a whole community.

  • Race

    The promise of the Black middle class was eroding as crack and all of its associated vices entrenched themselves deep into the heart of the 'hood. In the sixties and seventies, it was heroin that had wreaked the havoc, but the damage caused by crack would make heroin seem like little more than a footnote. (5.69)

    Tragically, Shaka is basically describing his own life here. He comes from a middle class family, and he has options. But the societal problems associated with crack keep pulling him toward more and more trouble.

    Donald Goines's novels had created in me a desire to read, but Malcolm's words snatched my eyes open and embedded in me a burning desire to do something meaningful with my life. His ability to go from a common street thug to a world-renowned orator and scholar inspired me in a way that nothing had before. (10.35)

    The power of example is pretty awesome. It's not just Malcolm X's ideas that inspire Shaka—it's also his story.

    I brought the book to the clerk for checkout, and she gave me a form to sign that said I would be charged five dollars if I lost the book or it got stolen. The only books we were required to fill out these forms for were ones written by Black authors. I mumbled to myself about racism as I looked around the room for other books that might interest me.(10.23)

    This seems pretty ironic, in a grim way. The books by Black authors are one of the things that help Shaka change. So why are they harder to access than the other books?

    I was terrified that my son would get caught up in the cycle of violence, drugs, and crime that had claimed so many from my generation—including me. I didn't want him to join the long line of young Black males who became statistics, and the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. (10.53)

    Things get even more personal when Shaka thinks about his son than when he thinks about himself. His son is one of the reasons that Shaka decides he has to work for changes in the systemic problems the African American community faces.

    Growing up, I didn't understand much about racial dynamics. My parents had raised us to view all people as people, and since we lived in aneighborhood that was primarily white, I believed them. But during my time in Prestonsburg, I learned that bigotry still exists in some parts of the country.(11.36)

    Shaka has a rude awakening when he and other African Americans face a bomb threat and cross burning while he's at a skills training program in Kentucky. Unfortunately, there's a lot more direct discrimination to come in his story.

    With each book that they fed me, I felt a part of my soul growing and opening up to commune with my ancestors. I immersed myself in African history and imagined what it was like in ancient Kemet (which had been renamed Egypt by the Greeks). I thought about the pyramids, which have stood the test of time, and wondered how they had been engineered. I thought about Timbuktu and how that society had created a vast trove of knowledge that was the envy of the world. In the short time I was at Standish, I learned more about African history than I had ever learned during all of my years in school. (14.35)

    Shaka has some positive Black role models like his dad, but he also talks a lot in the book about ways his neighborhood failed to provide a healthy model for the African American middle class. If he'd learned more about African contributions to the world in his early schooling, would that have helped him choose healthier paths early on?

    I continued to absorb as much wisdom as I could during the study sessions with the older brothers. We called these sessions "building," because their point was to help us construct new lives for ourselves based on spiritual and cultural principles of reciprocity, love, and compassion. "No matter what you do while you are in here," Baruti would tell me, "never give up on learning and trying to be a better person." I didn't always listen to him, but over the years, I would find all that he shared with me to be of great value.(14.39)

    Baruti is himself a great example of someone who keeps learning and trying to be a better person while in prison. Strong role models like Baruti, whom he meets through a Black Muslim group, help to give Shaka hope that he can be the man he wants to be.

    I will never forget how the brothers in the library embraced me when they saw that I came consistently to check out books. Whenever a new title arrived by a Black author, they would hold it for me, and eventually it got to the point where anytime I showed up, they would already have books picked out for me. The brothers made me give detailed reports on the books they gave me, in part because they wanted to know whether they were worth reading, but also because they wanted to make sure I had read them myself. It was because of the wise counsel of Baruti and the other brothers, and the way they challenged me to think, that I was able to leave prison with a sense of purpose.(14.40)

    This section is a great example of how reading about Black history and culture and participating in a community of other Black brothers work together in Shaka's life. Both the books and the community help Shaka to develop his purpose in life.

    This wasn't the first time I had witnessed this superiority complex that white officers carry on their chest like badges. In fact, even the officers who professed to have no racial prejudices were prone to exact revenge on a Black inmate if they thought he had gotten over on them. (18.14)

    Shaka's harsh experience in prison suggests that people aren't always as free of prejudice as they think.

    When the ceremony ended, some of the younger brothers began gravitating toward me. They told me that they respected my balance and integrity, and they had never heard anyone use history to help them understand what was happening to them in the present. They were inspired to learn more so that they, too, could lead and make a difference when they were released. (18.6)

    It's awesome that Shaka is able to become a mentor to younger Black men, just like the older brothers were mentors to him. He starts learning these skills long before he leaves prison, and that's one thing that helps him prepare to mentor in his community when he leaves prison.

  • Family

    We packed and cried, and packed and cried, until the crying gave way to laughter and joking. When we were done in the basement, he [Shaka's father] assured me that he would always be there for me no matter what. To this day, he has never let me down. (3.29)

    Shaka has a stable anchor in his father. Is this one of the reasons Shaka is later so committed to parenting his own son?

    Those words shredded my heart. How could a mother give up her child? What was wrong with me that made her not want to keep me? In that moment, I began erecting an emotional wall to protect me from my parents and any other intruder. I was done listening to them, done spending time with them, and done with letting them touch or talk to me. I was tired of being hurt and confused by two people I loved more than anything in the world.(3.41–42)

    Shaka's story really shows how important good family relationships are in his life. As he finds himself less and less able to connect with his parents as a teenager, he gets further and further into emotional trouble and physical danger.

    I had never thought about the fact that by getting locked up, I was also imprisoning everyone who loved or cared about me.(4.55)

    Shaka's whole family is affected by his imprisonment—it's one of the things that eventually reminds him to take responsibility for his whole community and not just his own life.

    Tamica and I had grown up fighting side by side; no matter who she got into it with, I was right there with her, and she never hesitated to return the favor. I told her the details of what had happened (leaving out the part about me smoking laced joints), and she told me I could stay with her as long as I needed. It wasn't home, but after months of fighting to survive on my own in the streets, here was a chance to start anew. (7.35)

    This is a good example of how family loyalty helps Shaka, but also how his whole family is affected by the tough societal conditions that surround him. His sister Tamica takes care of him faithfully. At the same time, they're both affected by the crack epidemic in their neighborhood, as Shaka gets pulled further into drug use and dealing and Tamica tries to help him deal with the fallout.

    I had given up on myself, my parents, and my brothers and sisters—but I would be damned if I'd give up on my children. I was determined to fight against the side of me that didn't think I could be anything more than a thuggish criminal or a predator to my community […] No matter how many times I got knocked to the ground, I would get up over and over again, until I could stand strong as a proud African man and father. (10.56)

    For Shaka being a dad is the thing that really lets him know he has to turn his life around. Parenting truly changes him, and helps him help his whole community.

    Those first few days of my release went by in a blur. On the first day, all of my siblings, cousins, and friends came by my father's house (with the exception of my sister Tamica, who was living in Seattle).(26.7)

    This detail reminds us how important Shaka's family has been all along the way. His father visited him faithfully in prison, and often brought Shaka's siblings or son along. Having a family that really cares is one of the things that makes a difference for Shaka along the way.

    My daughter Lakeisha came over with her son, and it was amazing seeing her in person for the first time since she was a baby. She had grown into a beautiful woman, and I was looking forward to getting to know her and my grandson. By the end of the day, I was filled with emotion at the outpouring of love and support from my family.(26.7)

    This book is about redemption, and for Shaka one element of that is connecting with other people again, especially family.

    When I had begun my transformation, back in the hole, I thought often about the kind of woman I desired to have in my life. I was changing as a man, and I had different needs than I had when I was a teenager slinging dope in Brightmoor. Now I wanted a woman who would challenge me to be the best I could possibly be. I wanted a woman who would love and nurture me; who had a determined spirit and would stand beside me as I fought the system for my release.(21.5)

    When Shaka starts to date Ebony, he's grown to see the kind of woman he needs to build a strong relationship. Ebony embodies the strength and courage and love that he's looking for, which also helps when they're later ready to build a family together.

    Watching Sekou grow, I realized that the desires I had expressed to the parole board were real— more than anything in the world, my dream was to give our son a better world than the one Ebony and I had inherited. And I also discovered that I couldn't have chosen a better coparent. Ebony's tenderness, thoughtfulness, and motherly instinct kept Sekou covered in a blanket of pure maternal love from the day he was born.(26.32)

    Parenting just keeps encouraging Shaka to be the best person he can be. When his and Ebony's son Sekou arrives, he finds he's even more serious about making the world a better place than he realized. And Shaka falls even more in love with Ebony in the process.

    Having my family visit really meant a lot to me. Their presence gave me hope and increased my desire to get out and live my life in a way that honored theirsacrifices over the years. My father had stood firmly by my side, and I was looking forward to showing him that his efforts hadn't been in vain. The countdown to my homecoming was under way, and it couldn't come soon enough.(20.29)

    Here we get an example of how much Shaka's family means to him during the years in prison, especially his dad's faithful love and commitment. From what you read in Writing My Wrongs, are there any ways the prison system could be more supportive of visiting families?

  • Spirituality/Religion

    On Sundays, when we went to church, my mother told me to pray to Jesus, and he would answer all of my prayers. Sometimes it gave me hope that she would change if I prayed, but she never did.(3.47)

    Is this big disappointment one reason Shaka finds himself growing doubtful about his mom's approach to spirituality?

    Thoughts of my mother and father tumbled through my mind. I thought about everything they had told me about God and how none of it made sense in that moment. I cursed theirblond-haired, blue-eyed God. How could he allow this to happen to me? I wondered. Where were the caring, protective arms of Jesus when I needed him? (7.32)

    The Christian Bible never claims that Jesus had blond hair and blue eyes, but a lot of American takes on Christianity sure make Jesus look white. Would Shaka's childhood spirituality have been more compelling to him if he hadn't been getting a version of Christianity filtered through white American culture?

    Anytime I found myself in serious trouble, I would pray to Jesus and ask him to pull me out of the mess. My motivation wasn't to establish a real relationship with God—it was to get my ass out of hot water. But that didn't mean that a small part of me didn't desire a sincere spiritual connection to the source of all life.(10.40)

    Rediscovering his spirituality in a different way does seem to be a pretty important part of Shaka's story of transformation. What different concepts of redemption do Shaka and the people around him have? Are they all versions of spirituality, or are some of them secular ethical systems?

    Malcolm's autobiography was the first book to make me question the faith in which I had been raised. His insights into how Christianity had been used to make African people passive in the face of such horrendous treatment by slave masters made me look at things differently. I started to question why all of the characters in the Bible were depicted as white when we saw them at church. I wanted to know where all the Black people were in the Bible. I knew we hadn't just fallen from the sky, but when I asked other Christians, I was either met with a blank stare or told it didn't matter, that God wasn't a color. It was the politically correct thing for them to say, but they said it nervously, suggesting that they knew differently. The fact is, color does matter— especially when you're looking for evidence that God cares about people like you. (10.41)

    This quote underlines the relationship between religious experience and culture in this book. Religious groups have done lots of awesome things (say, cathedrals and soup kitchens), but it's hard to deny that a lot of bad things have also gone down in the name of various religions over the years, and a lot of those bad things are linked to one culture dominating another. Even if you've personally had a great experience of Christians or Christianity, it's not hard to see why Shaka would struggle to believe a faith he's often experienced in the context of institutionalized discrimination.

    The more disenchanted I became with Christianity, the more intrigued I became with Islam. From the time I was a child, I had envisioned a worldthat was all-inclusive and a God that was all-loving, regardless of color. Malcolm's experience in Mecca and his description of Islam as a religion that didn't discriminate made me feel good, so I began researching the Islamic organizations in prison, looking for one to join.(10.42)

    This quote is another great example of how religious experience and cultural/racial background weave together for Shaka. He's attracted to Islam because of Malcolm X's experience of Islam as a religion that treats him equally and is against racial discrimination.

    Instead of trying to dazzle us with an imaginary paradise or the terrifying threat of eternal damnation, the [Melanic Islamic] spiritual advisors set out to help us understand our daily realities. This approach reminded me of Malcolm, and how instead of standing at the podium as though he were on the mountaintop, he came down and walked among the people. He related to their struggle, pain, and frustration because he had lived it himself.(10.44)

    Shaka wants spirituality and religion to be more about living well in the here and now than what things will be like in an afterlife. The Melanic brothers are a great match for his interest in that.

    Muslims have a reputation of sticking together and taking care of their members' problems, not unlike any other family, where the individual's problem becomes the problem of the group. (10.45)

    It's a good thing members of Islam treat each other like family—Shaka is in prison, separated by miles and bars from his own loving family, so the Melanic Brotherhood is where he finds something like family in the tough environment of prison.

    We stood as the program began. The brothers formed a ten-man prayer pyramid, moving in a counterclockwise motion and calling out to our ancestors. I was impressed by the precision of their movements. It was anawesome display of power, respect, and spirituality. In an uncompromising display of solidarity, the brothers paid homage to those who had come before us while praising the Creator for a chance to do something meaningful with our lives. (10.48)

    The connection to history and each other that Shaka finds in the Melanics is really important to him. He wants to connect with God in a way that also honors the culture and history of Black people.

    I continued to absorb as much wisdom as I could during the study sessions with the older [Melanic] brothers. We called these sessions "building," because their point was to help us construct new lives for ourselves based on spiritual and cultural principles of reciprocity, love, and compassion. "No matter what you do while you are in here," Baruti would tell me, "never give up on learning and trying to be a better person." I didn't always listen to him, but over the years, I would find all that he shared with me to be of great value.(14.39)

    One cool thing about wisdom shared by others in Shaka's spiritual community? It sticks with him even if he's not ready to hear it right away. Has something like this ever happened to you, with spiritual or secular advice?

    I was getting deeper into books on spirituality, faith, and meditation, and these activities helped keep me strong and resolute. I was growing to appreciate Eastern philosophy, with its emphasis on personal accountability and responsibility, and I also resumed reading the Bible and other religious texts, because I realized that spirituality is a common thread that connects all of us to one another. (19.35)

    While Shaka understandably wants a religion that honors his culture and race, he also sees spirituality as about his link to all of humanity: it goes beyond any specific culture.

  • Literature and Writing

    There's a reason why so many inmates use storytelling as a coping tool. Being in prison and stripped of your freedom is painful and degrading, and each day is a fight to maintain your sanity. In order to cope, some inmates make up entirely different lives for themselves, saying anything that might help them seem different or one notch above the rest of us poor, wretched souls.(2.23)

    Shaka says this early in the book, long before he talks about his own investment in writing. But it's a nice foreshadowing of what will happen for him eventually—telling his story will become more than just a coping tool, but a way he actually starts to make a new life for himself by transforming as a person.

    O'Neal-El was a member of the infamous drug crew Young Boys Incorporated, and his book was a collection of stories loosely based on his experience in the streets. He asked if I wanted to read one of his stories, and I laughed at the idea of an inmate writing a book. But I didn't have anything else to do, so I said yes. (10.20)

    Irony is often grim and sad. But this irony is pretty cool: Shaka starts out by laughing at the idea of an inmate writing a book, but he'll eventually find that writing transforms his own life for the better

    When I started reading O'Neal-El's stories, I couldn't put them down. The stories were only eighty or ninety pages long, but they were detailed and vivid. When I finished, I felt like I had grown up alongside O'Neal-El and his crew, wearing Adidas Top Tens, fur-lined Max Julien coats, and wide-brimmed campaign hats. (10.21)

    Shaka's life circumstances are really different from a lot of the reading memoirs you run across, but what he says here about feeling like he's grown up alongside someone through reading is a pretty widespread sentiment. Not all readers say this about these particular stories, but we bet you've heard somebody say something similar about Elizabeth Bennett or Harry Potter.

    Donald Goines's novels had created in me a desire to read, but Malcolm's words snatched my eyes open and embedded in me a burning desire to do something meaningful with my life. His ability to go from a common street thug to a world-renowned orator and scholar inspired me in a way that nothing had before. (10.35)

    Even though Malcolm X died a long time before Shaka knew about him, he can still be an inspiration (and something like a mentor to Shaka) because he wrote a book.

    Once I had read Malcolm, I began reading with a purpose. I devoured everything from political science to erotica to contemporary fiction and philosophy—but the most important objects of my study were books of Black history, as told by people of African descent.(10.36)

    History may seem old and musty. But it's a big ingredient in changing Shaka's life. It's proof that history has a real role to play in the here and now.

    My reading of Black history gave me a sense of pride and dignity that I didn't have prior to coming to prison. I learned about African kingdoms like Mali, Ashanti, and Timbuktu through classic works by the scholars Chancellor Williams, Cheikh Anta Diop, Dr. Yosef Ben Jochannan, and J. A. Rogers. I learned that my ancestors were more than passive observers of history; they were in fact an integral part of the development of civilization as we know it today. I discovered our great contributions tothe world, and it was a shot in the arm for my self-worth. It also helped me understand why the majority of the prison population looked like me and why there were so many deep-rooted racial antagonisms inside of prison. (10.37)

    Learning about African and African American contributions to the world? Awesome. Shaka having to wait till he's in prison to learn a lot of this? Not so great. Why didn't Shaka learn more about Black history in school?

    It was through these letters that I realized writing could serve as a means of escape. With a pencil and a piece of paper, it was almost like I could travel outside of prison and go wherever I desired. I could stand on the corner in my neighborhood, and no one could stop me. I could drive down the freeway to see my ex-girlfriend in Ohio, and the bars and wired fences couldn't hold me back. Writing was freedom, so I wrote till my fingers were sore.(12.36)

    We're all about the power of writing here at Shmoop, and this has got to be one of the great plugs for writing of all time. It's astonishing that it lets Shaka feel truly free even when he's serving a long sentence.

    I will never forget how the brothers in the library embraced me when they saw that I came consistently to check out books. Whenever a new title arrived by a Black author, they would hold it for me, and eventually it got to the point where anytime I showed up, they would already have books picked out for me. The brothers made me give detailed reports on the books they gave me, in part because they wanted to know whether they were worth reading, but also because they wanted to make sure I had read them myself. It was because of the wise counsel of Baruti and the other brothers, and the way they challenged me to think, that I was able to leave prison with a sense of purpose.(14.40)

    Reading doesn't have to be just a solitary thing. It can also be something that a whole community finds satisfying, as Shaka finds out. And the way these guys support Shaka ultimately makes a difference outside prison as well, because Shaka takes what he learned with him when he's released.

    But real changes came when I started keeping a journal. Anytime I got angry at one of the other inmates, I would immediately grab a lined notepad and begin writing down what I wanted to do to him and why.(19.28)

    No wonder Writing My Wrongs kicks off with that Socrates quote about how the unexamined life is not worth living [See "What's Up With the Epigraph" for more]. Self-examination through journaling genuinely turned Shaka's life around. Socrates has never sounded more relevant.

    It's hard to express how much this process of examination began to change me. Within the lined pages of my notepads, I got in touch with a part of me that didn't feel fear whenever something didn't go my way— a part of me that was capable of feeling compassion for the men around me. (19.30)

    It's weird and awesome how writing lets Shaka find a part of himself that he's been missing. Does it have that power for us, too?

    But with pen and paper, I clung to my sanity. I would sit down and write out my thoughts or work through the message of an inspirational book.(19.34)

    Shaka really is one of the best ads for writing we can think of. Yet another thing writing does for him is gets him through lots of awful stuff in prison.