Study Guide

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison Spirituality/Religion

By Shaka Senghor


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.

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