Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Short Form Review: Author Shaka Senghor provides an insightful look into prison life, contextualizing it with personal anecdotes from his youth. Pur poseful and inspirational, readers learn exactly how one learns to love and forgive after committing murder.
Five years into his sentence for a murder resulting from a drug interaction gone awry, author Shaka Senghor received a letter. Sent from the victim’s godmother, the letter expressed both her forgiveness of his transgression, and her hope that he found peace.
Tonight, I had the opportunity to ask where he thought he’d be if he hadn’t received that letter. Pausing to think about the question, his initial reply was a simple, “I honestly don’t know.” Pausing again, he continued by adding that it was this letter that gave him the space and the closure he needed to begin forgiving himself for taking a life. The letter “softened his heart,” which had been hardened from years on the street compounded by years behind.
Senghor served almost two decades in prison after being sentenced at 19 years old, and spent seven of those in solitary confinement. Writing My Wrongs is not an necessarily indictment of his sentence; he admits having committed the crime, and takes responsibility for his actions. Instead, Senghor uses his story to illustrate the linkages between his youth and his adulthood. Readers are taken through his disappointment with his on again off again parents, his fear as a 14-year-old entrenched in drug dealing, and his shame at his 11-year-old son finally finding out why he was incarcerated.
Disappointment, fear, and shame were dominant feelings in his youth, but Senghor develops passion as an adult Senghor– passion to do right by his sons and his fellow inmates. Listening to Senghor speak tonight, all that remained was an overwhelming sense of purpose. He spoke eloquently about his position on prison-related policies, such as President Obama’s effort to reduce youths in solitary confinement. But he also got into the nitty gritty. Into subjects those who haven’t spent excessive time in prison wouldn’t know to discuss. Recounting his last few days of imprisonment, Senghor recalls that only began to really receive help preparation for his release 60 days prior. “Nineteen years in jail, and they give you 60 days to get your life together,” he said, before detailing how things like this play into high American recidivism rates.
Literacy– not prison, saved Senghor. Long days and nights in prison repeatedly bested him, further and further away from the moral code he’d hoped to live by. If nothing else Writing My Wrongs shows that prison life brings out the best in nobody. Reading books such as the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and even religious texts such as the Bible, were what grounded him. Writing was equally as powerful, allowing him to connect the dots between his past adolescent anger and his current adult fury. When he finally got out of prison, writing is how he decided he would make a difference.
I gave this book a 4.5 out of 5. Those with an interest in mass incarceration issues and other issues associated with poverty and drugs should put this at the top of your list. It’s mandatory. However, it’s worth stressing that it’s appeal is wider than those with a niche interest such as myself. Universal themes such as justice, forgiveness, and failure (not in that order) make this a book fit for any shelf.
And hell, if Oprah is reading it, you should probably at least give the dust cover a skim, right? That said, check out his interview with Oprah this Sunday on Super Soul Sunday.