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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.