Study Guide

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

By Shaka Senghor


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.

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