Study Guide

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison Chapter 26

By Shaka Senghor

Chapter 26

  • Nobody can explain the beginning of this chapter better than Shaka. He says:
  • "On June 22, 2010, the day after my thirty-eighth birthday, I walked out of prison a free man." (26.1)
  • Shaka's been in prison for nineteen years, so when he finally gets out, he almost feels like a new baby starting a completely new life.
  • Jay and Ebony come to meet Shaka.
  • One of Shaka's friends who's also being freed that day buys a book from him, and that's Shaka's first official book sale as a free man.
  • Shaka and Ebony and Jay been planning a fancy lunch at a nice restaurant, but it happens to be closed that day, so they have Subway instead. Shaka says it was still the best meal of his life.
  • Lots of family members come together to celebrate, including Shaka's daughter and her son, Shaka's grandson. Lots of awesome celebrations ensue.
  • Once they've all had a great time celebrating, Shaka starts working on his writing and publishing business.
  • He also has to catch up on some normal life stuff, like taking the driver's test and learning how to use a Blackberry. Remember, it was 2010.
  • Shaka does have some challenges adjusting, though. Most of the basic stuff people learn to do as young adults he missed.
  • Paying bills, buying a house, getting a normal job—all these things are harder if you were in prison when other people your age were learning to do them. Plus, it's much harder to get hired if you've been incarcerated, so that makes it tough too.
  • On top of that, technology exploded in the nineteen years that Shaka was in prison, so he's catching up on things like iPhones and Facebook.
  • Along with all that, Shaka needs to keep up with parole requirements.
  • These can be pretty tough, including avoiding lots of parties his friends are going to.
  • Shaka's even supposed to avoid places where kids are using water guns.
  • But Shaka's enjoying life in spite of these challenges. He goes to see the Detroit Tigers for the first time ever and also has a great time on his first airplane flight when he goes to give a talk for the University of Wisconsin.
  • Shaka gets a writing job with The Michigan Citizen and really enjoys building his writing experience.
  • The paper unfortunately has budget cuts soon afterward, though, and he's not able to make enough on the job. So he starts exploring other options.
  • Some great things start happening in 2011. A Detroit filmmaker is looking to make a documentary about Shaka, and Shaka also gets an acting role in The Mocha Monologues.
  • Shaka and Ebony get a nice new townhouse and also discover they're expecting their first child.
  • They're super excited. Shaka also feels more focused on making money.
  • Shaka's contributing to their income through rising book sales, but Ebony is still bearing most of their living expenses, and Shaka wants to make enough that she doesn't have to worry so much about it.
  • But finding a job is harder than Shaka hopes.
  • The economy isn't great, and it's hard to get hired as someone who was in prison—even for jobs like counseling guys with felony convictions, where you'd think making it out of the prison system as a changed person could be pretty helpful experience.
  • Ebony's really supportive even though all of this is taking a while, and Shaka keeps volunteering and sharing his story with local high school and college students.
  • He also keeps selling books as he can.
  • Then Shaka finds out that the Knight Foundation is running a pilot program called BMe (which stands for Black Male Engagement). It offers awards and grants to Black men doing positive things in their communities, and Shaka gets nominated.
  • He and Ebony write a proposal for a mentoring program built around helping at-risk youth use writing to process their emotions.
  • Shaka soon finds out that he has won a BMe award, and his mentoring project will get grant funding from the Knight Foundation.
  • Shaka is thrilled, and he's even more thrilled about the baby he and Ebony are expecting. They decide to name him Sekou Akili (translation: Scholarly Warrior).
  • They do have some challenges during the pregnancy.
  • Mainly, Ebony really wants to do natural childbirth and not a C-section, and little Sekou is turned the wrong way for that to work for quite a while.
  • But eventually, just a week before Ebony expects to have the C-section, Sekou turns the right way.
  • Everybody's thrilled, but they're even more thrilled when Sekou is actually born.
  • Shaka loves holding his new son. And he realizes how deeply he wants to give Sekou a better world.
  • Not long after Sekou's birth, the BMe program holds a reception for the award winners. Shaka's friend Yusef, who had been in prison with Shaka at one point, has also won a BMe award.
  • It's pretty awesome that they could both come out of prison and start doing positive things in their community.
  • Shaka loves going to the ceremony and being able to share the occasion with his father. His dad has been so supportive of him over the years, and Shaka is thrilled to invite him along.
  • The mentorship project Shaka runs with the BMe funds goes incredibly well, and he loves seeing the students learn to express themselves in writing.
  • Many of them have really sad stories of abuse in their pasts, but Shaka can see hope in their newfound ability to express themselves.
  • Shaka finishes up his parole in June of 2012 and feels great knowing that he can finally live life completely free of the prison system.
  • Unfortunately, Shaka continues to have a hard time finding a job after the BMe grant finishes, and book sales and speaking engagements aren't happening fast enough to provide a full income. Ebony is really supportive, but Shaka is stressed out and feels discouraged. He keeps networking and applying for jobs, but it's hard for him to feel like it's working.
  • But by July, Shaka does encounter some people who will change his life.
  • The Knight Foundation invites him to an event. Shaka's been to meetings and events like this before that don't really go anywhere, so he's skeptical.
  • But he turns up, and this time something really cool happens.
  • The presenters are Joi Ito, director of MIT's Media Lab, and a guy named Colin Rainey who works with a design company called IDEO.
  • Shaka isn't sold at first—he's seen a lot of outsiders turn up in Detroit and think they can help without really understanding the challenges.
  • But as Shaka listens, he thinks that Joi and Colin actually have some good ideas, and the MIT Media Lab has some technologies that might really help in Detroit, with practical ideas like improving lighting on the street or helping citizens figure out the quality of the air they're breathing.
  • Shaka thinks these solutions to real problems can actually help, but he also wonders if Joi and Colin really understand the issues Detroit is facing.
  • Sometimes people get a romanticized idea of what the city is like and don't really see the actual problems and the citizens who are already working hard to solve them.
  • In Shaka's own words, "I raised my hand and told them that their ideas sounded great, but if they really wanted their work to make a difference, they needed to include the real Detroit in the conversation." (26.43)
  • After the presentation is over, Shaka meets Joi and Colin and offers to introduce them to people who are already doing incredible work in Detroit. They agree instantly.
  • They can't do it that day because they're scheduled to go back to Boston, but they promise to do it as soon as they can.
  • Before fifteen minutes are up, Joi sends Shaka an email. Within a few days, Shaka gets invited to go to the MIT Media Lab. He's never visited the Boston area before, so he's excited.
  • Shaka loves visiting the Media Lab, which is pretty cool-looking. He gets a tour and finds out about all sorts of cool projects, including folding cars (to make it easier to park in small spaces). Another project he likes is Makey Makey, which lets you plug in whatever you want and make music with it. Shaka is really excited about what people at the Media Lab could do in Detroit.
  • Soon, Media Lab folks do come to visit, and Shaka gives them a tour of the city. Watching their faces, he can see a bunch of different emotions as they tour, including sadness but also hope and intrigue.
  • He tries to describe the history of Detroit and the many societal challenges that have made it what it is today, but he has trouble finding words.
  • It's probably best to quote Shaka's own words at the end of this chapter:
  • "There was no easy answer, no way of neatly describing what it was like to grow up here and have the weight of this city press on your soul. I couldn't put that feeling into words. So instead, I simply said that there was so much hope and potential there, even amid the violence and the disorder. Even amid the pain, fear, and destruction I had experienced and inflicted in these streets, there was still hope. And there still is." (26.51)