Study Guide

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

By Shaka Senghor

Prologue

  • Shaka starts by telling us about a crisis he faced after two years of being in solitary confinement.
  • He's staring into a sheet of steel that serves as his mirror (no real mirrors allowed in prison) and crying.
  • Why? Because this is the moment when he finally decides to confront his whole past—everyone who's hurt him and everyone he's hurt. Not easy stuff.
  • Shaka thinks back to all the people who picked on him in his childhood. Some of them made fun of him because they considered his head to be too large. Others made racist comments about his hair.
  • While the comments still hurt just as much, Shaka tells us he was finally ready to forgive the people who made them.
  • He forgives his mother, who hit him with a belt and often wasn't there when he needed her.
  • He forgives the guy who shot him when he was seventeen.
  • He forgives siblings and homies who abandoned him at the worst moment of his life.
  • Then he starts sobbing like he's never cried before.
  • No wonder. Revisiting your whole past is pretty scary. Especially if that past includes being the victim of abandonment, prejudice, and violence.
  • But Shaka also starts to feel a deep peace, one that's going to last.
  • That's because he finally gets forgiveness. He realizes it's not just about giving up grudges against other people. It's about getting free of his own anger and hurt, and forgiving himself too.
  • Sounds like a good realization.
  • Then—wham. Shaka hits us with a pretty big reveal.
  • He's a murderer.
  • That's why forgiving himself is hard. He doesn't feel like he deserves forgiveness. But he also knows deep down that he won't be able to forgive others if he can't forgive himself.
  • Shaka had read a book by James Allen called As A Man Thinketh, and that book had helped Shaka realize he was responsible for his own feelings of anger and for the way he acted on them.
  • Shaka lets us know it would still be eight more years until he finished the journey of self-discovery that began at this moment.
  • The process would be complete when Shaka finally wrote a letter to the man he had killed, as he was completing a therapy course and applying to be released from prison.
  • Shaka shares the letter with us now.
  • He describes the deep regret he feels and how saying sorry feels like such a small gesture in comparison to the harm he caused. He talks about how, at the time he committed the murder, he confused weakness and strength. He now knows it takes strength to walk away from a conflict, but at the time he thought he had to fight to show strength.
  • In the letter, Shaka also talks about how he had been shot sixteen months before the murder he committed. While Shaka was lucky enough to survive the shooting, he became fearful and paranoid as a result, using anger to cover up his fear.
  • He was carrying a gun on the night of the murder because he thought that was the only way to protect himself from the violence of others.
  • Now, seventeen years later, he knows how wrong it was to shoot his victim that night, but he didn't understand then how much more strength it takes to walk away from a fight than to stay in it.
  • Shaka takes responsibility in the letter for the guilt of killing someone, something he says he wasn't able to do when he was tried for the murder.
  • He pleaded guilty at that time since he knew he had broken the law, but he didn't face up to the full weight of his responsibility.
  • As the letter continues, Shaka says it took about ten years of prison for him to start seeing things differently.
  • The deepest change came a year after that process of realization began. At that time, his eleven-year-old son mailed Shaka a letter saying he knew why Shaka was in prison.
  • Realizing his son viewed him as a murderer really caused Shaka to start rethinking his life and taking responsibility for his actions.
  • Shaka tells his victim how sorry he is and asks for forgiveness in the letter. He imagines the life the victim might have had and wishes he could give back the life he took.
  • Shaka says he knows that apologizing can never give back a life.
  • But Shaka also says he believes in atonement, and he's now giving his life and his talents to try to make amends for the wrong he did.
  • He works with anti-violence groups that help at risk youth. He's also told his own story in the hope that others will be able to make better choices than he did.
  • Shaka says that doesn't change his past actions, but he does want the man he shot to know that his life wasn't in vain.
  • In fact, as the letter continues, Shaka says that it's the victim's godmother, Mrs. Weaver, who first taught him the power of forgiveness.
  • She wrote Shaka after he'd been in prison for about five years. She asked him why he had killed her godson.
  • It was one of the hardest questions Shaka could imagine, but he tried because he knew he owed the family closure. He tried to explain what happened and why in a letter, and he said that he wished more than anything that he could change what happened that night.
  • The victim's godmother actually wrote back, and she said that she forgave Shaka and told him to seek God's forgiveness, too.
  • Shaka listened to her and was able to forgive himself five years later.
  • He now thinks the godmother's response may have been the first thing that really encouraged him to change.
  • Shaka closes by saying he still has work to do in his life, but now he lives with meaning and purpose.