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This memoir starts off in a solitary confinement unit…so you know there's a dramatic story coming.
And it doesn't disappoint—pretty much every step of Shaka's journey is riveting. Shaka leaves home when he's fourteen to escape a tough home situation with his mother. He doesn't have an income, and he's living on the streets of Detroit, so when a drug dealer offers to hire him, he says yes. Shaka starts doing really long stints selling drugs (Weirdly, drug dealers don't seem to be too picky about child labor laws).
The drug dealing pays the bills and even lets teenaged Shaka buy fancy new clothes, but it also exposes him to all sorts of violence and betrayal. In the tough world of drug sales, people threaten Shaka, double cross each other, and do all sorts of weird stuff. Shaka slowly becomes desensitized to violence and suffering. He tries to quit street life occasionally, but it never works.
When a guy shoots Shaka over an argument, Shaka survives. But he's really traumatized, and he becomes more and more paranoid. He carries a gun everywhere because he sees it as the only way to protect himself. When he's nineteen, a drug sale gets out of hand and Shaka fatally shoots someone.
Shaka goes to prison with a sentence of seventeen to forty years, regretfully leaving behind his girlfriend Brenda, who is pregnant with their first child. Prison turns out to be a lot like street life, full of violence and people competing with each other to survive. In this brutal world, Shaka becomes tougher and tougher. In spite of his best intentions, he finds himself becoming more dependent on violence to protect himself.
But even in this harsh environment, Shaka slowly discovers some things that will help him change. He slowly discovers that he loves both reading and writing. He starts to read about Black history and activism and finds a sense of dignity and pride he didn't have before in the accomplishments of his ancestors and contemporary African American communities. He joins a Black Muslim community called the Melanic Brotherhood and learns more about his own spirituality and being part of a community. He finds mentors who have changed their lives for good and are now trying to mentor younger guys.
It takes a long time for some of these things to add up to real change in Shaka's life. But some crucial turning points come during a four and a half year period where Shaka is stuck in solitary confinement. The experience is terrible, and Shaka sees the other inmates there struggling with huge mental health challenges. He realizes that he needs to change to avoid ending up the same way. He breaks down and confronts all the emotions he's been hiding and all the hurts people have done to him over the years, and he finds a way to forgive other people and himself.
After this, he sets up his life as though he's taking college classes, using the time in solitary confinement to read and write. During this time, he slowly begins to realize who he really wants to be and to move in that direction.
About a year after starting that process of change, Shaka has another key turning point.
His son Jay writes him a letter about the murder Shaka committed. Jay's letter helps Shaka complete the process of accepting responsibility for his past and committing to become a different person in the future. Wanting to be there for his son is one of the biggest motivators for Shaka to change.
After those crucial moments, Shaka still has a lot of prison time to serve, but he grows more and more and finds ways to mentor younger guys. He finds publishing opportunities for some of his writing and plans ways to expand that work when he gets out. He also meets a woman named Ebony who works with an organization that helps inmates stay in touch with people on the outside and grow as people. They start a romance, and Ebony stands by Shaka through the rest of his sentence. Shaka and Ebony are even able to start a publishing company together. (23.6)
Finally, in 2010, Shaka is released from prison. He dives into mentoring and speaking work to try and help other teenagers make better choices than he did as a young man, and he continues writing and publishing. It's often challenging for him to make a living, since many regular jobs won't hire him due to his criminal record. But he perseveres and wins an award and grant from the Knight Foundation for the BMe (Black Male Engagement) program. He and Ebony also have a child together, Sekou, and Shaka is thrilled to have the chance to be an active father.
The book ends with Shaka connecting with innovators at the MIT Media Lab and a design firm called IDEO and collaborating on their efforts to support Detroit with new technologies. Shaka ends with a message of hope that individuals can change, and that society can support that change.