Shaka Senghor’s riviting novel, “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison” (Drop A Gem Publishing, 2013, $26), goes far beyond the typical inner-city narrative focusing on poverty, gangs, drugs and misspent youth. His critically acclaimed work takes the reader deep inside the American penal system as the Detroit native provides an in-depth look at how he arrived in prison for murder and the steps he methodically took to change his life, make amends to those that he hurt, and instill within the audience an understanding of the power of forgiveness and how a destitute life can be changed.
Critics across the nation have been raving about Senghor’s book, and how his words have demonstrated that a person must forgive himself for evil deeds and then look to make things right with all those he has deeply wounded. The author may tell it best within the many interviews and book signings he has undertaken since the book’s initial release and reissue this year. Last month he told “CBS This Morning” that a “30-second decision can ruin your life” in recounting the dreadful moment when he killed a Detroit crack customer because he was, at first, still smarting from being on the receiving end of three bullets in 1990, and about one year later decided to shoot into a vehicle containing three White customers, two of which he’d known for some time, but one he suspected of being an undercover cop (“Don’t bring nobody around I don’t know”).
Senghor describes the brutality of prison life with unflinching detail. Everything from the “convict code” (don’t look away when being “stared down,” but don’t fix your gaze too long, either), mind your own business no matter what you’ve witnessed (an interracial rape perpetrated in front of an indifferent audience); keeping personal, “outside” memories close to your breast and, above all, maintaining dignity in the face of daily despair.
Senghor was originally sentenced to 40 years and underwent a series of transfers within the Michigan prison system. During this time, he tried to make peace with his family in an effort which didn’t fit the typical mold of ghetto life. His parents lived a particularly content life in Detroit, trying their best to rear he and his siblings in comfort and love. Senghor’s parents separated many years before his criminal downfall, got back together, then separated once again but maintained an amicable relationship even when their son was sentenced to prison. This aspect of the author’s life tends to depart from the typical story of an inner-city kid within a dysfunctional family. Senghor’s father as did the author’s girlfriend visited him in prison frequently, and these interactions are interspersed throughout the book as though they were natural occurrences within the family. But they weren’t, of course, and these facts allow the reader to look deep inside the interpersonal relationships between loved ones.
After 10 years, Senghor’s son sent him a letter explaining how he came to know that his dad was in prison for murder; the heartfelt missive appeared to be the catalyst for dramatic change in a once-angry teenager who occupied those dreary days behind bars devouring everything from “Plato’s Republic” to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Senghor latched on to literature as though he came from a fancy prep school. Soon, his work was distributed in various journals and magazines dedicated to prison reform.
Senghor told the morning news program, “It was that letter my son sent me that changed everything. I demonstrated the error of my ways, and it saddened me because I did have a father figure in my life, and here I was in prison with a son begging for guidance … for love. These were things I couldn’t provide to him. I made up my mind then that I would make amends to every one I hurt.”
One of the people he particularly hurt was the mother of the man he killed. The woman wrote Senghor a letter in 1997, although he didn’t unearth it until 18 years later while rummaging through an old footlocker that once held prison letters, journals and assorted documents. She told Senghor that her son was a parent of a baby boy at the time of his death, and that he also had a kid brother—just like the author—who “… didn’t only lose a brother—he lost his best friend.” The letter continued with piercing words: “I forgive you. How can I do less? Because God loves you, and I am a Christian, so I humbly follow His guidance.”
Senghor said the only thing he could do was immediately write back. The two began an unlikely correspondence, and the woman explained that the once angry teenager was never destined to spend 19 years in prison. In turn, Senghor tells the reader—particularly the African American audience—that “none of our children are born that way,” and when they get that way, they “aren’t lost for good.”
Senghor’s book is essential reading for understanding the motivation—and transformation—of a troubled soul.