Study Guide

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

  • Transformation

    Transformation is pretty much the name of the game in Writing My Wrongs. The whole book is about how Shaka started out as one person…and became a much different one.

    There are lots of things that helped along the way. Having a loving father who was always there for him. Having a son Shaka wants to care for. Being forgiven by someone close to his victim. Learning African history and understanding where his story started. Writing about his life. Seeing his son grow up. Finding a girlfriend who genuinely understands what he's going through.

    But transformation requires something else: Shaka has to really choose to become the best version of himself. It's a long, slow transformation, but Shaka truly forgives his old self and the people who hurt him, takes responsibility for his life, and becomes someone much different. And check this out: Shaka's story gives us hope that other people who have done something terrible can change too.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Is there one thing that Shaka finds the most transformative in his life? Or are many different things necessary to his process of transformation?
    2. What does real transformation mean for Shaka? What personal traits and commitments stay with him, and which ones does he overcome or leave behind?
    3. What specific role does writing play in Shaka's transformation? What are the different kinds of writing that help him?

    Chew on This

    For Shaka, chronicling his life in writing is the thing that lets him really see why he needs to change, and find the will to do it.

    Anyone can experience the same transformation Shaka found, if they're willing to do the work.

  • Justice and Judgment

    What does it mean to be just? Is justice about how a whole system works, or about how an individual lives? Or something in between?

    In Writing My Wrongs, Shaka gives us an up close view of the American justice system and tries to answer those questions through his own experience. Writing My Wrongs is interested in the system: it raises the question about how just American society and the American justice system are.

    But it also addresses Shaka's individual responsibility to become a person who lives out justice rather than fear or anger.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. What is the relationship between an individual and society when it comes to achieving justice, in Shaka's opinion? How much of the responsibility to work for it is individual, and how much is communal?
    2. Is the American legal and prison system as Shaka experiences it just? Or is it trying to dispense justice in a way that is sometimes pretty flawed?
    3. In Shaka's book, does he see justice as mainly a matter of avoiding crime or other damaging behavior? Or does he have a positive vision of what a just society could look like?

    Chew on This

    Shaka's experience suggests that the American justice system has a long way to go before it is itself just.

    Shaka sees both individuals and whole communities as responsible for seeking justice.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Writing My Wrongs is a prison memoir, so it's no shocker that freedom and confinement is a major theme.

    But it's brutally eye-opening what the system of confinement often does to people—many seem to be more inclined to commit violence in prison than they were outside. It's a much happier surprise where Shaka finds freedom even during his incarceration—in writing letters or stories, for instance.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Is prison the best way to prevent those who've committed crimes from harming society? What other options might there be?
    2. What kinds of freedom does Shaka long for in the course of his memoir, and what personal qualities does he need to develop to be truly free?
    3. What's the difference between Shaka before his prison experience and Shaka after? Is it confinement or freedom that has changed him, or both?

    Chew on This

    Shaka's journey toward freedom starts long before he's literally released.

    For Shaka, freedom is an inward quality as well as an outward state.

  • Violence

    Most people agree that violence is a problem. But in Writing My Wrongs, it's not a problem that's just standing on its own. It's wrapped up with other social problems, including personal and institutional racism, drugs, and families breaking apart.

    Lots of these problems are just as bad in prison as they are in the tougher sections of America's cities—when people are sent to jail to try to correct the problems, they sometimes get even more tangled up in them. Seems like solving violence might have to include solving a lot of other things too.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What causes Shaka to turn to violence as a young man? What might have prevented it? Do your answers to either of those questions suggest any paths forward for American society?
    2. How are racism and violence related in Writing My Wrongs?
    3. Based on Shaka's ideas, what might be some ways of decreasing violence in America? Which of his ideas for decreasing violence do you think are the strongest?

    Chew on This

    Society often views acts of violence as a sign that a person can never change. In Writing My Wrongs, Shaka suggests that violent people actually can change.

    Much of the violence Shaka describes could have been avoided if society put more effort into solving other problems like drug addiction.

  • Race

    Shaka experiences a lot of racism throughout Writing My Wrongs, and he also has to do a lot of learning to figure out what he thinks about race in America. Some of his problems stem from obvious discrimination, like when white prison guards mistreat Black prisoners. But a lot of Shaka's problems also seem to come from ways that various systems are more subtly tilted against him, like the fact that his childhood school didn't teach him about a lot of the accomplishments of Africa and African Americans in history.

    In cases like these, it's harder to figure out exactly who is responsible or how to fix it. But Shaka seems to be saying that the solution involves both individuals and a wider community. For him, individual learning about the accomplishments of Africans and African Americans inspires a desire to grow as a person and to change society for the better.

    Questions About Race

    1. How does learning more history shape Shaka's understanding of race and how to make progress on racial reconciliation?
    2. How does reading and writing help Shaka understand more about the racism Black communities face? What does he learn about trying to change society through reading and writing?
    3. What are some of the things Shaka's various communities do to try to overcome racism against them?

    Chew on This

    Experiencing racism in prison made it harder for Shaka to change.

    Overcoming the problems racism causes in society isn't just about avoiding obvious discrimination; it's also about trying to build a society that welcomes and appreciates everyone.

  • Family

    Family is a super important theme in Writing My Wrongs, with a lot of layers to it.

    On the one hand, Shaka's family is a solid presence in his life, and his dad is an amazing role model who is always there for Shaka no matter what, even through all the years of prison and into the good things that come after. Shaka's siblings also seem to be important people in his life and to care about him.

    On the other hand, his parents' divorce contributes to a lot of Shaka's early troubles and long-term trauma, so there are some tough things associated with family in the book too. Maybe the toughest is the way Shaka's mother mistreats him and at least partially rejects him. It takes Shaka a long time to be able to forgive those things, which are contributing factors to why he winds up on the streets.

    On a more positive note, being a parent himself is one of the key things that motivates Shaka to turn his life around and grow into the man he wants to be. So family is really important in this book, and it's clear that a family member's failure to care for someone can be disastrous, while the love of a family member can really transform things for the better.

    Questions About Family

    1. What does the book as a whole suggest about the role family has to play in shaping a person's life?
    2. What are some things Shaka's dad does to show care for Shaka? How do they affect Shaka in the long run?
    3. What does Shaka learn about being a son from having children himself?
    4. By the time Shaka starts a family with Ebony, what has he learned about being a good parent? How has he learned it?

    Chew on This

    Shaka becomes a better son by being a parent himself.

    Shaka might not have found the strength to turn his life around without the letters his son sent him.

  • Spirituality/Religion

    Spirituality isn't just about what happens in your inner life—it's also about what happens in your connections to other people, the cultures that shape your experience of religion, and the long histories of how religion and culture intertwine.

    Throughout Writing My Wrongs, Shaka has to sort through all of this in his experience of spirituality and religion. He grew up with Christianity, but a version of it filtered through white American culture in a way that he eventually found hard to connect to. In prison, he discovered Muslim groups with a spirituality more focused on African and African American heritage. Shaka found deep growth and community there.

    Along the way, important people in his life shared their investment in spirituality, usually Christian or Islamic, as a motivation for caring about Shaka and supporting him.

    Questions About Spirituality/Religion

    1. How do culture and history impact Shaka's experience of religion and spirituality? Are religion and spirituality mainly an interior experience, or do they also relate to external cultural and societal factors?
    2. What role does Shaka see religion/spirituality as having played in his transformation?
    3. What are some of the challenges Shaka sees in connecting to religion/spirituality in his life?

    Chew on This

    Shaka values religion and spirituality, but he's also open to critiquing religious organizations.

    Shaka felt a need to find a religious expression that valued Black culture.

  • Literature and Writing

    The book is called Writing My Wrongs—you'd better believe writing and literature is an important theme.

    Literature and writing have a crucial role to play in turning Shaka's life around. Reading gives him a sense of purpose and dignity, and a desire to live up to the example set by great men and women of Black history.

    And writing does all sorts of things for him. Writing in his journal is what lets him see how much he needs to change, and actually start making that change inside himself. Writing to other people lets him feel free even when he's in prison and helps him build and maintain relationships. And when his writing starts getting published even while he's in prison, Shaka finds hope that writing will help him make a living and make an impact on his community by telling his story and helping other young people make good choices.

    Writing really does help Shaka right his wrongs—both the ones done to him and the ones he's done—making his title a very clever pun.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Writing really seems to be a key thing that turned Shaka's life around. Could it have this power for everyone, or is it more something that works for specific people?
    2. Are there any similarities in how Shaka experiences writing and how you do?
    3. How does reading shape Shaka's interest in writing? Is that similar to your experience or not?

    Chew on This

    Reading widely gives Shaka the models he needs to start writing.

    Writing can change anyone's life, even if their circumstances are very different than Shaka's.