Study Guide

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

By Shaka Senghor


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.

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