16. Shaka Senghor: Writing His Wrongs (While Helping Others Do Right)
“Some of my best mentors are serving life in prison. I am here as a testament to them. These are some of the best men I have ever spent time with.” Shaka Senghor
When we encounter crossroads in life, we can't always make the right decisions. And when we make the wrong ones, often we have to live with those. Many of us are lucky to not be in close proximity to bad decisions that could derail the paths we're on in a big way. Most of us won't ever know what 19 years in prison feels like.
Shaka Senghor is one of the people who does. He also knows that he never wants those who grew up like him to go down the same path.
In 1991, Shaka shot and killed a man and was convicted of second-degree murder at only 19 years old. This was the culmination of a tough upbringing in Detroit which included his parents separating, abuse at the hands of his mother, dealing and doing drugs, seeing others killed before his very eyes and being fearful for his life. While he's taken many risks, all it took was this one wrong to alter the course of his life forever. With that said, as Ford puts it in their profile of him, Shaka had one quality that could take him from a murder conviction to a 1-on-1 with Oprah: resilience.
While I had the pleasure of meeting Shaka in May 2016 at the Ford Freedom Award, where he was being honored as a Man of Courage for his inspirational fatherhood and work in the community, I learned the nuts and bolts of his story when I was gifted his phenomenal book, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison. Having read his book, I'm in awe of how recent the resurrection of his independence is. He was only released from prison 7 years ago. I was a senior at an all boys prep school. Still, Shaka’s story resonates with me, especially due to Shaka’s passion for writing.
In his book, Shaka shared his means of solace: "Writing was freedom, so I wrote till my fingers were sore.” In one sense, it is unexpected that someone who spent time in prison would write so poetically, gripping you with his every word. And on second thought, that’s the problem. As he has stated, our prison system and this culture of criminalization, especially of black men, dehumanizes black men and those like Shaka who had so much to give to society but were minimized to their look and rap sheet.
I admire his resilience, his heart, and his writing skills. I also admire Shaka for, today, being a best-selling author, inspiring the community and young men to steer them away from the fate he faced. It’s important work and Shaka is up to the task to take it, raising the next generation of greatness and building a better tomorrow for countess young people.