Study Guide

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

By Shaka Senghor

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.

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