Study Guide

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

By Shaka Senghor


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?

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