Study Guide

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

By Shaka Senghor

Shaka Senghor

Why are we so fascinated by the characters of Darth Vader, or Severus Snape?

Because their stories are all about redemption.

Over the course of time, we see these characters discover that there's something good inside them. And they ultimately make choices that move toward that good and away from the evil.

While Writing My Wrongs doesn't involve Jedi mind tricks or Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, it's also all about redemption. Specifically, it's all about Shaka Senghor's redemption.

He goes from being a kid who learned to be tough on the streets and committed a terrible crime, to becoming a strong and compassionate man who takes responsibility for making the world around him a better place. That transformation is the heart of the book.

So who is Shaka in this memoir? Maybe the best way to answer that question is to look at how he tells us his story of redemption, and who he is at several crucial moments along the way.

Vulnerable Teenager

Most redemption stories have some backstory, and Shaka's is no different. If we're going to see how someone rediscovers the good in themselves, it helps to see what they were like before they went in the wrong direction. In the Star Wars prequels, we see what Anakin was like as a young boy, full of great potential to be strong in the Force. Shaka's not Darth Vader, (and thank goodness his story is more gripping than The Phantom Menace). But he uses this classic storytelling technique and gives us some backstory.

Shaka starts out as a teenager, smart and vulnerable. He loves his home, full of music and good food and loving family members. He wants to be a doctor so he can help people. Our glimpse into this world is short, but it sure looks awesome.

Hardening Street Kid

Most redemption stories also have a decisive event (or series of events) that push the character in the wrong direction in the first place. Snape and Anakin both have their share of tough circumstances… and Shaka's story is like that too.

When his parents go through a process of splitting up and getting back together again, and then finally split for good, he's shaken and sad. His mother is abusive, sometimes hitting him and shouting at him. Eventually she tells him that he'll have to live with his father because he's a young man and she can no longer raise him.

Shaka feels deeply hurt by this:

In that moment, I began erecting an emotional wall to protect me from myparents and any other intruder. I was done listening to them, done spending time with them, and done with letting them touch or talk to me. I was tired of being hurt and confused by two people I loved more than anything in the world. (3.42)

Later on, when his parents briefly reconcile and Shaka is living with his mother again, he's too hurt to trust her, and he doesn't want to keep her rules. So when she tells him he can honor her rules or leave, well, he leaves.

Unfortunately, this kicks off a period where things just get worse and worse for Shaka. He goes from being a pretty innocent kid to becoming a hardened drug dealer. In order to survive, he takes a job selling drugs for a local dealer, Miko. Shaka is too young and naïve to realize just how many bad things are going to come of taking the job. Pretty soon, Shaka is watching the horrible damage crack causes in people's lives and deciding he can't trust any adults.

Dealing drugs also exposes Shaka to all kinds of violence, and he becomes more and more desensitized to it. When somebody shoots him, Shaka survives physically, but he's horribly traumatized emotionally. He's still a teenager, but he starts carrying a gun everywhere. This is really the turning point that leads to the next phase of Shaka's character journey.

Released from the hospital, I returned to my block a deadlier person than the man who had shot me. For the next fourteen months, anger would become my mask and shield as I navigated my way through the streets. The last remaining shreds of my innocence had been killed, but at the time, I was blind to what was happening on the inside. (15.1)

Basically, Shaka's character in this part of the book is defined by fear and a desperate determination to hide his emotions and cover them up with bravado.

Convicted Criminal/Prisoner

It's only fourteen months until Shaka's actions catch up with his damaged psyche. Eventually, he shoots someone who's arguing with him and winds up in prison.

Early on, he sees how brutal the prison system can be—other prisoners rape and stab each other, often over the smallest of things. There are some things Shaka can't imagine himself doing, however bad it gets: he thinks prison rape is horrific and doesn't do it. But unfortunately he does feel like he has to learn how to defend himself with violence in the rough world of prison.

In fact, lots of things about prison mostly push Shaka to continue most of the habits that got him there: hiding his positive emotions or anything that might be seen as a sign of weakness, hardening himself against too much hope, and becoming more angry and violent.

Yet at the same time, there are some glimmers of hope, and some moments where Shaka realizes that he desperately needs and wants to change. These eventually lead to the next step in Shaka's character development…

Changing Man

In lots of movie redemption stories, change happens in one spectacular scene. (Darth Vader pretty much has one big, dramatic change at the end of Return of the Jedi.)

And yeah: in real life people do have dramatic moments, but they also change in thousands of small ways over years and years. Shaka's story has some of each. He starts the whole book with this dramatic description of the moment when he finally forgives himself and makes the fundamental turnaround that changes his life:

I stared at the mirror, watching the tears roll slowly down my face, each drop carrying the pain of my childhood. I was on my second year of a four-and-a-half-year stint in solitary confinement. It was my deepest moment of reflection, a sacred moment of clarity when I came face-to-face with true forgiveness. (Prologue.1)

But just a few paragraphs later he describes the long haul of change as well:

I stared at the battle-scarred image in front of me and knew I needed to begin the long, tedious process of making peace with my past. I opened up deep wounds that had been stuffed with the gauze of anger and self-hatred. (Prologue.3)

Shaka has some dramatic moments that point him on the road to change, but he also has some processes of slow discovery. It takes him a long time to learn about Black history and discover the sense of dignity and value it gives him. It's no quick process for him to figure out how to give up violence, especially in the world of prison where others might attack him at any moment. And it's a long, slow haul to keep understanding and changing himself.

So who is Shaka? He's a man who's willing to do the long, slow work of change, and also a man who's had a few dramatic moments of clarity that let him see where to go. And at the end, he's a transformed person.

Leader and Mentor

Shaka has a future after prison—his redemption is a whole lot happier than Snape's or Vader's. And his future is to be a leader and mentor in his community, someone who helps teenagers avoid the mistakes he made.

He starts this process even while he's still in prison. Here's his description of supporting some younger guys at Muskegon Correctional Facility when he's there in 1999:

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)

When Shaka is finally released, he dives right into speaking and mentoring to try to help at risk kids in his community. He provides an example of someone who has triumphed over really difficult circumstances and is now a strong and compassionate romantic partner, father, friend, and community member.

So who is Shaka at this point? He's a strong community member, a speaker, a good friend and family member, and someone who can partner with initiatives like the Knight Foundation's BMe (Black Male Engagement) awards and MIT's Media Lab to make a real difference in his community.

And he's the phenomenally talent author of the book we just read.