It’s hard to be a person right now. Things feel really uncertain and scary and sad. I almost want to quit looking at Facebook and Twitter and disengage completely from the news. Almost. I can and will take breaks from social media and the news (self-care!), but I can’t hide under a blanket all the time. I will NOT give up hope for a better future, and I will NOT stop trying to do my part (my small part) to make the future better. I am convinced that one way to make the world better is to read and talk about books by people whose life experiences are totally different from one’s own. Reading has always put me into the shoes of another person, be it a nineteenth-century governess in England or a twenty-first century black man serving time in a prison in Michigan. I am really glad that I spent time in the shoes of Shaka Senghor. His memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison captivated me and made me question my views of American justice.
I became interested in this book after reading Whitney’s great review of it on her site. (That recommendation from Oprah didn’t hurt either!) It had a waiting list at my library but it finally came around a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to write about this book because I think it should be widely read, not only for Senghor’s powerful story of personal redemption, but also for the hard look into the modern prison system.
Senghor was an honor-roll student in Detroit and had dreams of becoming a doctor when his parents’ marriage began unraveling. As they separated and reconciled more than once, the stability of life at home became uncertain. When his father moved out for good,Shaka remained with his mother most of the time. Their relationship was volatile and his mother’s beatings began to get worse. Rather than take the abuse, a fourteen year-old Senghor started living on the streets. Hungry and dirty, he soon started selling drugs.
He said Miko was looking for someone to “roll” for him, which was code for selling drugs. He said Miko was paying up to $350 a week, plus $10 a day for food, for anyone willing to sit in one of his drug spots. the only catch was that you had to be willing to sit in the spot twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week… It was the lowest job on the drug-dealing totem pole, but it sounded like a good deal to me. All I could think about was having somewhere to lay my head and a way to feed and clothe myself. Without further discussion, I told Tommie that I would do it.
As more people he knew were shot and murdered, and as he got deeper into the crack trade, Senghor wondered when it would be his turn to experience violence. He hardened his heart, because “if you were cold, at least it meant that you weren’t weak.”
I no longer cared if I lived or died. In fact, I started looking forward to the day of my demise. It was as twisted thought, but it gave me a sense of control. If I embraced death, then I wouldn’t have to live in fear of dying – at least that’s what I told myself. The reality was that my true fear was of living, because living had become too painful. Around each corner, I saw a bullet with my name on it. In every car that sped by, I saw death machine chauffeured by the grim reaper himself.
I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would have to kill or be killed…How can a child expect to exist like this and not go insane?
At the age of nineteen, Senghor shot and killed man and was arrested. He was sentenced to two years for felony firearm possession, and fifteen to forty years for murder in the second degree. As he was transferred from prison to prison over the years, Senghor drew refuge and strength in reading books from the prison libraries. When he discovered the writing of Malcolm X he was inspired to explore Islam, and became a disciple of the Melanic Islamic Palace of the Rising Son. His readings in African history ignited a pride in his heritage that he had never felt before. His spirituality and his reading was slowly inspiring him to become a better person.
But he continued to struggle with anger during the course of his sentence, culminating in a violent incident with an abusive officer that led to a four year stint in solitary confinement. It is amazing that Senghor survived with his sanity intact, as many around him seemed to descend into madness. The descriptions of solitary are chilling, and made me wonder what good this sort of punishment actually does. It was in solitary that Senghor started journaling, finally examining the damage done to his psyche in childhood and the layers of shame and guilt underneath the anger and bravado. He even started writing fiction as a way to “escape” the confines of his cell and fellow inmates.
I really liked the back and forth structure of the book, alternating from Senghor’s childhood and teenage years to his prison sentence. I really came to understand how an insecure, vulnerable young man could fall into a hard, violent world and not be able to get himself out before the damage was done. I felt sorry for the boy who was shaken by his parents’ divorce and hurt by his mother’s emotional and physical abuse. I could see how he carried the shame of murdering another man all throughout his prison sentence, and I could also feel how badly he wanted to atone, be there for his children, and help other young black men not follow in his footsteps. I feel like this book has opened my eyes to how we treat criminals in America. Do we truly believe in second chances in this country, or do we shrug and say, “Well, you had your chance, and you blew it, so screw the rest of your life.” I don’t know how I would react if the man Senghor killed had been someone I love. I hope that I would learn how to show the grace and forgiveness that the godmother of his victim (who raised him) showed in her letter to Senghor that ignited a lengthy correspondence between them. She wrote that she loved him, and forgave him, because God loved him, and because she followed his guidance. What a gift. This book made me wonder what levels of redemption and rehabilitation we could achieve if we put an army of psychologists and counselors in prisons, and encouraged people in jail to examine themselves and their pasts on paper. I don’t know if every person who commits murder can be redeemed, but Senghor’s memoir certainly made me open my mind to the possibility. This was a compelling page-turner, and I highly recommend it.
(Book 5 of my 10 Books of Summer – from Cathy’s challenge at 746 Books.)