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

By Shaka Senghor

Convergent Books | 2016

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

Shaka Senghor

Shaka Senghor’s story of redemption

A couple of generations ago, black male writers were firmly ensconced on the literary roost.  Noted authors such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Amiri Baraka (nee LeRoi Jones), Ishmael Reed, and John A. Williams were being reviewed, summoned to the book circuit, and lauded by the award committees.

Then Terry McMillan and notable others—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, Bebe Moore Campbell, Bell Hooks, et. al.—broke the ice and marked the arrival of a coterie of highly informed, assertive and talented black female writers.

Now comes a fresh wave of younger African-American men, several of them richly-anointed with the top prizes. Leading the way is Ta-Nehisi Coates, a proud recipient of a bundle of awards, none more lucrative than the MacArthur Genius salute.

Hot on his heels is Marlon James, who took home the esteemed Man Booker Prize. Darryl Pinckney, perhaps not as young, and Hilton Als, the New Yorker magazine’s resident guru as well as the redoubtable Stanley Crouch and Paul Beatty among those returning to the plateau of acclaim.

Most of these black men of the pen have commanded media space one way or another, but they better save some room for Shaka Senghor. His book, Writing My Wrongs—Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison (Convergent Books, 2016) is gathering considerable praise from a plethora of respected critics. In many ways his book is a cautionary tale in the tradition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler, or even Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, but with substantial more grit, grief, and grist.

It is also a book about Detroit, a city that has endured its share of bad news.  Senghor counter balances the terrible press and provides at least a few sprigs of hope and promise.

Senghor’s story of a resident’s emergence from squalor and depredation should give the city’s residents, even its aspiring writers, a solid example of a person’s recovery, a man’s determination to do the right thing no matter how far he has fallen into the pit of depravity and dysfunctionality.

Senghor’s rise from a crucible of crime, long periods of solitary confinement in prison, and finding the strength to forgive, drives his narrative and reveals a skillful storyteller. While his story of redemption is by no means unique, Senghor has his own special way of recounting an experience that never seems to veer away from absolute hopelessness.

It stands to reason that most of the book takes place in practically every correctional institution in the state of Michigan. As he relates in the first of the book’s three parts, “The slamming of the steel doors was a signal that the iron monster had once again been fed. My journey begins.”

That journey would last nineteen years before he was released in 2010. He had spent half his life in reformatories or prisons, and his impressions of those nights and days are delivered with a stark realism that is only occasionally relieved by humor and the bizarre characters he encounters.

Bracketing his cautionary tale are two letters. At the beginning of the book Senghor recalls a letter he wrote to the man he killed. “It wasn’t until I was ten years into serving my sentence [he had been sentenced to forty years] that I began seeing things differently. My healing started when I learned to begin forgiving myself for the wrongs I had committed,” he wrote. “However the real change started a year later when my eleven-year-old son sent me a letter that said he had found out the real reason I was in prison.”

In the book’s Afterword, he discloses a letter he received from the mother of the man he murdered, another more horrifying way he stands apart from the previously mentioned writers. “What I want you to know, other than these painful things that you have brought upon my family, is that I love you, and I forgive you,” she wrote. The letter is as moving as his own self-abasement, and he concludes by asking us to envision “a world where men and women aren’t held hostage to their pasts, where misdeeds and mistakes don’t define you and the rest of your life.

“In an era of record incarceration and a culture of violence, we can learn to love those who no longer love themselves,” he continues. “Together, we can begin to make things right.”

Senghor has clearly made some phenomenal leaps to make things right, and none are more heartfelt than the relationship he developed with Ebony, a woman who without reservation helped him toward the better angels of his nature. The letters they shared, though we get only a tantalizing peak at them, are reminiscent of those exchanges between Angela Davis and George Jackson.

Throughout the book we see Senghor’s gradual transformation, a steady growth and political development that is enhanced by the books of such Afro-Centric scholars as Amos Wilson, J.A. Rogers, Chancellor Williams, and Maya Angelou. Of course, there’s Malcolm’s autobiography, and there may come a time when Senghor’s book will be embraced with the same resolve as he gave to his mentors.

And, it is certainly exciting to learn that a writer is being celebrated in his hometown with a flurry of events now underway in recognition of his redemptive rise. Among the most publicized is one at the Charles Wright Museum of African American Culture, the city’s nationally heralded institution. It’s a perfect place to let a native son know how much they cherish his recovery.

Even if that day never arrives, we can take pride in Senghor’s ongoing evolution, his devotion to teaching and his leadership as the Director of Strategy and Innovation with #cut50, and his work to end the pipeline of young Black men to the nation’s prisons.

His presence, his redemption is a sufficient reward.

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