Study Guide

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

By Shaka Senghor


I had been at Wayne County Jail for six weeks, following my arrest and conviction for second-degree murder. In those six weeks, I had witnessed everything from rape and robbery to murder, and this was one more reminder that inmates had no shortage of creativity when it came to inflicting harm on other men. Little did I know, this was just beginning my education in the true meaning of violence. (1.22)

Even after a few years of working with violent drug dealers, Shaka learns a lot more about violence in the prison system. Are other prisoners also learning more about violence in the very system that is supposed to help solve stop violence in society?

That's what you did in the 'hood, jail, and the prison yard. If you and another male exchanged glances, you'd better be up to the challenge, or you would be considered weak. And in our world, the weak became prey.(2.16)

Masculinity and conflict go together in a lot of Shaka's experience. We can't help but wonder if one reason he's eventually able to shake this expectation is his own father's example of love, respect, and responsibility.

This kind of thinking is common among marginalized Black and Latino males. In the 'hood, the villain is the hero, the guy people look up to. So we hang out in front of liquor stores with plastic bags in our boxers and semiautomatics tucked into our waistbands, living out our version of the American dream.(2.19)

This quote raises the question, "Just what is the American dream?" What version of the American dream would actually help people who feel left out of the standard story about American identity?

From the streets of Detroit to the organized-crime families of Chicago, from the dirty South to the gang-infested neighborhoods of L.A. and New York, we all wear the mask. It is the one that says, "I am fearless, Idon't care, and I will destroy anything in my path, including myself." But all of us know that beneath this mask is a vulnerable boy whose heart has turned cold. (2.20)

Why do kids from marginalized communities pretend not to care? Is it because they're afraid that what they actually care about will always be out of reach? And what would it take to change the situation?

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)

The Inferno is basically about a journey through hell, and it's no accident that Shaka mentions it here. Like Dante, Shaka is about to see a lot of different horrible things.

My heart fluttered like the broken wings of a bird. I was terrified. The cold, steel barrel pressing into my temple pressed into my consciousness a colder reality—at fourteen, I was about to die. (3.2)

This moment is a key turning point in Shaka's story. He's terrified of losing his life when someone points a gun at him just a few weeks into his life as a drug dealer. Being threatened with violence is one of the things that encourages Shaka to become more violent himself—it's a grim cycle.

My reality didn't feel real. I couldn't believe I was sitting in a cell with a stranger discussing the possibility of me spending the rest of my life in prison. I was supposed to be on my way to college. I was supposed to be following my dream of becoming a doctor—of becoming a healer, not a destroyer.(4.43)

Shaka had other dreams before getting caught up in violence and choosing to act violently himself. Are those other dreams part of the reason he can find his way back to a different life eventually?

To this day, I think those shots were a cover for what Coop really wanted to do, which was cry. His family had been threatened, and he had been made to bite the bullet that was meant to kill him. No man wants to live knowing his actions could've brought devastation on his family. (13.16)

Shaka seems to be suggesting here that there might have been less violence in his old neighborhood if there had been less social stigma attached to men expressing their vulnerabilities through words or tears. It's an idea Shaka hints at often in Writing My Wrongs.

That's why I'm asking you to envision a world where men and women aren't heldhostage to their pasts, where misdeeds and mistakes don't define you for the rest of your life. In an era of record incarcerations and a culture of violence, we can learn to love those who no longer love themselves. Together, we can begin to make things right.(Afterword, 16).

This is how Shaka ends the book—with hope that violence doesn't need to define either American society or individual lives. We think it's significant that he invites the reader into that: it's something that takes a whole community.

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