Please post your blog for Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor here by October 14th at 9 PM.

14 thoughts on “Writing My Wrongs

  1. As I finished Writing My Wrongs, I immediately went online and began looking for interviews with Shaka Senghor. This wasn’t because I felt like I hadn’t gotten to know the author on the page, but rather, I wanted to see the things he was up to after this book. With the call to action in the afterword, I knew that there was an explicit after beyond the life he had illustrated in his youth and in the prison. To me, it was the vulnerability of his character in the darkest moments of violence, suicide, and racism and the way that he was able to reflect in such a transparent way that made me invested in his activist work, which I feel was the intention.
    Senghor’s writing style was clean and direct, while descriptive when it needed to be. I found that his voice was most restrained when reflecting back on a time in which he did not have the most descriptive explanation, knowledge, or feeling beyond anger. The sentences are founded in less imagery or metaphor than the moments where he is vividly describing a place, like the crackhouses in his youth or solitary confinement in the hole. These sentences present a sense of urgency in their reflection, illustrating the things that he wishes he would’ve known. From this, the way he was able to explain what he “wanted” throughout the text did a lot of work for me as a reader. When he reflects, often using language like “looking back,” “it wasn’t until years later,” “at some point,” he also places us in a meditative space, where we are given a guileless view. The honesty in these moments (namely, chapter 13) removes a sensationalism that could’ve arisen in a narrative like this. However, the character he creates isn’t all-knowing in these reflective moments. The small detail of the bullet being forever lodged in the foot is an image that dually illustrates the ways in which these themes of anger, violence, and callousness would thread throughout his life.
    I was also struck at how Senghor used the collective “we” in the text. This was an intentional craft choice that also illuminated how many of these stories were the same for others in the community. It is the systematic oppression of black youth that affects these narratives, and Senghor highlights this by creating a unified narrative or reflection at points. This comes as early as chapter 2, where he writes, “We hang out in front of liquor stores … living out our version of the American dream” (25). This continues into the contrasting experiences dealing with the prison-industrial complex, with his fellow brothers in their study groups, “We held a quixotic view of the movement, and our loyalty was often misguided” (140). Here, it is not as if he is directly referencing a group of people in the scene. Rather, it is if he is telling these stories alongside his own. The “we” creates this collective mindset, giving more life and insight into the other characters in the story. This also shows up in his interactions with Brenda, where he says, “Like many Black youth growing up in dysfunctional homes, her golden heart had been callused by neglect, hurt, and heartbreak” (148). Again, it is a way in which a very transparent and personal narrative is much larger, moving into a systematic and institutional manifesto.
    As a last thought, I am thinking about the way in which movement is used throughout this book. It is not linear storytelling, and we are jumping between the moments leading up to the murder and his prison experiences up until Part 3. In addition, he is transferred between many different facilities, sometimes moving multiple points throughout each chapter. This creates an almost chaotic, fast-paced narrative in contrast to a place where the time is moving very slow for him. This seems like an interesting choice when a lot of the story relies on him coming to an accountability and peace with his actions, thematically a different pace.
    • I found the inclusion of the letter at the end an interesting addition, as he talks about it near the beginning of the book, too. It feels like a forgiveness from someone outside of these systematic structures after a forgiveness of himself. This isn’t so much of a question, but I wondered what other people thought of the last paragraph as a call to action, as I found it extremely powerful.
    • What is the use of the constant flooding in solitary confinement, a biblical image? (page 175)
    • How is the place and description of the hospital mirroring the description of his first time stepping into Wayne County Jail?
    • There were many different characters who Senghor met in prison introduced throughout the story, like Gigolo, Kevin, Murder, DJ X, O’Neal-El, etc. I felt as if O’Neal-El had the most impact, though he was not given a lot of space. What other characters seemed to contribute to Senghor’s personal story, and seemed more a part of the prison-industry complex story?

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    1. Maddy, you are a blessing to me right now (smile)! I absolutely loved everything that you touched on especially this “It is the systematic oppression of black youth that affects these narratives, and Senghor highlights this by creating a unified narrative or reflection at points. This comes as early as chapter 2, where he writes, “We hang out in front of liquor stores … living out our version of the American dream” (25). This continues into the contrasting experiences dealing with the prison-industrial complex, with his fellow brothers in their study groups, “We held a quixotic view of the movement, and our loyalty was often misguided” (140). Here, it is not as if he is directly referencing a group of people in the scene. Rather, it is if he is telling these stories alongside his own. The “we” creates this collective mindset, giving more life and insight into the other characters in the story.”
      Maddy, My heart “heavily” bleeds for “our” children today but especially for “my” African American boys who fall prey to this “designed” systematic plight. On another note* you asked about the use of constant flooding in solitary confinement…in the biblical sense that can be found in the book of Genesis, chapter 6-9, referencing Noah’s great flood (Gen 6:17). The flood destroyed, death occurred, a covenant was established (between God and man) and restoration took hold…That is exactly what happened in Shaka Senghor’s life…I also believe that the author skillfully and metaphorically pointed to the constant flooding in solitary confinement as a non-stop “shedding of tears” similar to the “Trails of Tears” “our” Indian brothers have suffered…but then again, Senghor did say early on in the book (p.16) “we all wear the mask.” Thank you for this wonderful post. Renee’.

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    2. They Come in Threes

      In Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, I found three devices that brilliantly achieved their intended purpose: cogent similes and metaphors, descriptive scenes, and strong dialogue. I also came upon three issues where the choices made failed to capture what the writer was going for: highlighting the letter to the victim in the prologue, various POV violations throughout and debatable observations. I’m going to share only one example of each, even though I have a lot to say about this book, so that I can get all my opinions in.

      Senghor is masterful in conveying the heaviness of a concept or moment with effectual similes and metaphors that aren’t too familiar. One great example is on page 24. This is when we first encounter life at the Marlborough house and Senghor states that the “same sickness was soaking into my pores” as a means to relay that the depravity that he was exposed to was beginning to desensitize him at such a young age.
      Senghor also shines throughout Writing My Wrongs when he taps into his ability to bring readers right into captivating scenes. One superb example of this is on page 94, when Senghor first arrives at the Michigan Reformatory. He uses vivid descriptions of the cell room, which bring the entire scene to life, smells included. About the cell he says “the place smelled like raw sewage had been dumped on the flour. The hard, green plastic-covered mattress was peeling and cracked, and the pillow was as flat as a pancake. The faucet at the sink dripped a brown liquid, and the toilet was full of human waste.”

      The last tool that hits a home run for me is the use of dialogue. Through dialogue, Senghor cleverly captures cultural nuances, without making his characters seem like caricatures. The dialogue between the inmates on page 10 is a great example of this. The conversation is relaxed enough to convey all the information a reader needs about the moment and who these men might be, without playing on stereotypes.

      About what didn’t work…

      If it is true that one terrible deed doesn’t define us, then Senghor should have placed the letter he wrote to the victim somewhere else other than the prologue. While I appreciated most of the details provided in this section, reading that letter created a bias that I couldn’t shake. I wanted to go on a journey with the narrator, without having this heavy sentence sitting in the back of my mind telling me that there was no good reason for taking someone’s life. It also felt a bit like putting the cart before the horse. The letter was written by the Senghor we had yet to meet and it left me with all types of blah feelings.

      The other issue that was a head scratcher for me was the various POV violations throughout the narrative. There is no way that Senghor could know, based on how it is written, what other inmates were feeling. Every instance where someone else’s thoughts made an appearance in the narrative, made me doubt Senghor’s credibility. For example, as the prison van drives up to the Michigan Reformatory on page 93, Senghor writes that “prison stamped out any thoughts of freedom. In its place, we felt only fear. Not that we showed it.” If in fact, he could know this about the other inmates on the bus, then the language used to describe this should clarify how he came to understand what everyone else was thinking. Otherwise, it feels like a violation to tell me what another character is feeling in a nonfiction piece.

      While reading Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, I couldn’t help but reflect on the events that led to me to sitting in Laughlin House, on the Chatham University campus in Pittsburgh, reading a book for a creative writing graduate course. I thought about the family and friends left behind in Miami, the crazy ten years in a coke-fueled New York City where I became unhinged, and the humiliating moment when I had to finally admit that I was powerless against addiction and could no longer run away from my demons.

      Do you see what I did there? I placed a powerful moment of reflection, which captures a lot, in a very weird place. How could I possibly be thinking all these things while reading a book? This is the question that continuously popped into my head, as I navigated one inconceivably compelling observation after another. By using a reconfigured version of events, Senghor is trying to rebuild the past through a lens that only now can see how certain things connect. While I can appreciate what he is trying to attempt, I often found myself questioning the validity of these memories. On page 15, Senghor finds himself in handcuffs at police headquarters and remembering a conversation with his mother who asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. In this case, as is in many others, the information presented just seems too detailed to be an actual memory and is at odds with the action taking place.

      I’m curious what others thought about the subtle ways Senghor exposes the corrupt prison system.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Looking forward to discussing the placement of the letter. You make a strong argument for why it shouldn’t have been placed where it was, and I look forward to more discussion. Funny but when you inserted your reflection where you did I could absolutely feel that you might be thinking about these things while reading the book. Let’s talk more about specific examples from the book that aren’t working for you (in class).

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  2. One aspect of Writing My Wrongs that stood out to me, and that I really admire, is the way Senghor used vernacular throughout. At no point did it inhibit his message from coming across, and it often gave us a sense of his voice and personality. There were many times when he used more colloquial language, such as “homies,” “brother,” or even “take a dump.” This is clearly a voice that is similar to Senghor’s speaking voice. In terms of craft, this is a risk. A writer has to ask themselves what kind of language is going to feel genuine, and in this case, what language is going to make you be understood and taken seriously. I struggle a lot with maintaining my voice (in writing and speaking) and being taken seriously. As a reader, I definitely took notice of this and admired Senghor’s commitment and consistency.
    Senghor’s tendency to openly reflect on a memory, or a version of his past self, really made me think. There were many passages where Sengor explained his rationale, such as when he discusses attempting suicide, “I felt unloved and unwanted at home, and I didn’t fit in at my new school… In my mind, being in the basement symbolized my standing in the family – I was a burden” (110-111). I think that this passage serves to really show us Senghor’s current and past perspective simultaneously. He gives himself a chance to explain, not excuse, his thinking. We get to see that he has grown and been able to analyze his old behavior. This is essential for keeping Senghor as a character consistent.
    Last class, we talked about the way Galang broke up Lola’s House with narratives that weren’t direct testimony. I noticed a similar technique being used in Writing My Wrongs. I appreciated Senghor’s attention to time and the way he shifted points in the narrative. We didn’t get to read about the murder he committed until very close to the end of the book. For nearly 200 pages, we knew it happened but not how or why. He allowed himself the space to build a connection with the reader. In this way, the death wasn’t sensational or used to rope a reader in. This, I think, places an appropriate amount of value on the killing. As much as it is Senghor’s story, a man did lose his life, and giving this story some space and background does justice to the parts of it that Senghor is claiming, in my opinion.
    Additionally, this variation in time helped us understand Senghor’s growth in prison as it related to his pain. We also got breaks from the prison narrative, and that was especially helpful in making the book…. more palatable, for lack of a better term. It was much easier to work through (in one sitting, as I did). I also noticed that Senghor didn’t go through his time in prison moment by moment. He selected important moments that illustrated the most typical moments or the worst of prison life. He summarized his time in solitary, which was especially thoughtful. This book didn’t feel like a bunch of moments, some more important than others, strung together. It felt like a purposeful collection of Senghor’s experiences.

    Some questions I have for class:
    What did everyone else think about Senghor’s voice/vernacular? How does this consideration influence your own voice in your writing?
    What did you think about Senghor’s reflections? They reminded me, in a way, of Westover’s use of imagination. Did you find one of these more reliable or effective?

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  3. Hi Rachel, in response to your question “What did everyone else think about Senghor’s voice/vernacular? How does this consideration influence your own voice in your writing?” It’s funny that you raised this question because when I entered Chatham University, I wondered how my voice/dialect would be received…especially, given the fact that I use a great deal of slang in my poetry to capture the times and space for which I am writing. If my poem relates to slavery my use of words reflect that era, if writing for the 21st century, I use the slang of “my” children’s tongue. Last week, Author Safia Elhillo, did a wonderful job while reading and being interviewed at Chatham University in defining her voice by letting us (the reader) know that it is OK to appeal only to a select audience. While, I would love everyone to read my work…it’s Ok who chooses not to…because, I have learned at Chatham University to write from my heart while using the craft and tools taught to me. I now know that my voice is different from yours and that is growth taking place within. On another note* Senghor’s voice/vernacular captured my attention immediately. I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS BOOK because the author’s voice, music, street game reflected the true essence of…what it means to be caught up into the designed “system.” On a less serious note (smile) some of my family members are laughing at me because of the curse words in the book that I chose to do my project on….I’ve already repented for the words that I will use in class (smile-ha, ha). Thank you for sharing, Renee’.

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  4. I was a little apprehensive when I first started this book. I was concerned that it was going to read like an attack on what is wrong with the world without covering the parts that require personal accountability. I am glad that I was wrong. It was an impressive story. It is not an easy thing to claw your way out of the destructive patterns that were formed due to any reason, and it is that much harder to claw your way up with social class, poverty, race, parenting (or lack of), and a lack of education stacked against you.
    I know I keep talking about braids, but this one was also a carefully woven story, although Senghor uses time and chronology to tell it. He starts near the end, at his moment of great epiphany, which tracks his theme of personal triumph and growth, and he treads backward from there. While this mostly works, there were a few instances when I had to leaf backwards through the pages to either find the correct timing, the correct child, or the correct name. When this happened, I was either confused or lost in time. For instance, this happened on pages 36-37, 41-42, 44, and 71. On these pages, I marked the various inconsistencies that had me checking back to the year, the month, the jail, or the exact cellblock place.
    Did anyone else feel his chronology and timing did a lot of abrupt jumping around or have a hard time following the chronology jumps?
    Around page 82, I started to follow the story’s chronology and timeline better. I imagine it is because I had become invested and learned in the characters and could see his place in the story.
    He uses several braids:
    (1) The braid of is life leading up to jail, which was extremely interesting to me. The only thing I wished he had done was go back to the initial conflict he described in being robbed in East Side Detroit, 1986, five years earlier, a the beginning of Chapter 3. I felt that this scene was a building block and he never ended up telling me what his drug supplier did when he found out he got robbed. I thought it would be woven back into the story, but he abandoned it, and if he did go back to it, it was lost on me because of the numerous time jumps. Otherwise, this thread was very descriptive and detailed.
    (2) The braid of his life in jail, which was a long winding journey of pain, hard time, and discovery. The reader experiences his loss, his anger, and eventually his redemption.
    (3) And the turning point braid when he saw himself as bitter, blaming, and unchanged, which started his journey to education and activism. I enjoyed this part immensely because he did not immediately reap the benefits of change. He was not given immediate parole; he had to persevere. And he did.
    I really thought it was important that he ended as he began: with the letter from his victim’s family. I felt like his story had come full circle and it was important for the reader to identify that letter and response as one of the defining moments in his redemption.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very good point with respect to your initial apprehensions, and I hope we talk about this. A memoir like this could easily turn on cliche without taking responsibility for one’s own actions. Re number 1 above, do you mean when he robbed his drug supplier? I guess I thought the beating he got and the fact that he was unable to work for the drug supplier again was punishment enough? We’ll discuss in class!


  5. As I progressed through Writing My Wrongs, I noticed that Senghor was not just using flashbacks to reveal parts of his life before incarceration, but skillfully executing a braided narrative. I’ll be honest, this was not a term I was familiar with before this semester, so to see Senghor move back and forth in time with purpose was enlightening. I often found myself finishing one chapter and wondering how that information would come to inform on the next, literal chapter in Shaka’s story.

    Sometimes the way the threads of Shaka’s life weave together are not very clear but are still thought provoking. Senghor ends one chapter describing the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother, which leads to him leaving home, and his introduction to dealing. The next chapter begins with the rape of a white inmate by another black inmate while Senghor is in the Wayne County Jail. Senghor explains that the rape transpired because the white inmate did not understand the “rules” of the jail. It is jarring to go from a naked teenage Shaka one page, being beaten with a belt by his mother for not obeying her “rules”, to a fellow inmate being raped over a donut and cereal. By placing these incidents in such close proximity, Shaka shows us how the consequences of one’s actions increase tenfold in prison.

    While I know that we are supposed to focus our reflections on craft, I would like to note how Senghor’s story caused me to look at bias and expectations within myself. While sharing his experience with drug dealing, violence, and time in prison, Senghor also subverts stereotypes often associated with African-American men. He shares early on with the reader his positive relationship with his father and describes seeing his father cry as one of the best gifts he was given. Shaka describes the neighborhood he grew up in as middle-class and well-kept in the early days of the Detroit crack epidemic. He describes being on the honor roll in school, and having deep feelings of love and respect for Brenda, and later Ebony.

    His style of writing is clear and open, sometimes crude, but never simplistic. It comes as no surprise that he is an MIT Media Lab fellow, had his own Ted Talk, or is actively working towards prison reform. What is surprising is that he was a teenage runaway turned crack dealer, turned murderer, turned inmate. What is surprising is that he didn’t let prison life swallow him whole. Senghor’s story is not the narrative that we are spoon fed about Black men, and that is a quality that makes it even more valuable.

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    1. Let’s talk more about how that juxtaposition of the threads of his narratives works. It’s a really important craft issue, and I’m’ glad to see that you noticed it.

      And your comments about how the book had you thinking about your own bias are completely relevant.


  6. When I first started reading “Writing my Wrongs” by Shaka Senghor, I found myself momentarily confused. It was immediately clear to me that the foreword hadn’t been written by Senghor himself. It took me until the second page to catch on, and then I found myself thinking about the power of this short foreword, about the power behind first having someone reputable endorse the author, who we know to have served prison time, before we read his story in full. I wonder what I (and you all) might have thought about or experienced differently without this foreword. Am I the only one who made note of it and let it influence my reading before it really even began?

    Moving to the prologue, I first noticed Senghor’s use of imagery and aids like simile, metaphor, and sometimes personification. The first of these lines that stood out to me was on the first page: “I opened up deep wounds that had been stuffed with the gauze of anger and self-hatred.” Another was, “The words from my past ricocheted around in my mind like errant bullets, hurting no less now than they had back then” (2). In addition to the imagery in these two lines, I immediately noticed the connection between them and the epigraph at the beginning of the book (The unexamined life is not worth living). Just from these few lines, let alone the prologue as a whole, I could tell that Senghor had done some serious self-examination and reflection, as is to be expected when someone has spent such a large part of their young adult life in prison, and he certainly carried this torch throughout the remainder of the book though his use of plain language and his transparency with the reader about the truths of his past.

    As I moved through the rest of the book, I would occasionally find myself thinking back to the prologue, wondering why Senghor started with this turning point in his life and with the letter he wrote to the man he killed when he didn’t plan on addressing the murder again for quite some time. I landed upon two answers to this question: 1) To allow the reader the time to connect with his story, to give himself a change to explain (not excuse) the path that led him to killing a man in the first place and 2) To help build himself as a dynamic character.

    Overall, I think Senghor’s characterization of himself, of others, and of Detroit, in this book is what I hope to be able to take notes on and implement into my own work. Through his language and imagery, especially the carnal detail (I noticed he used a lot of smells, which is something I don’t recall having in many of the other books we’ve read so far), and precise yet plain language he was able to paint a vivid and dynamic picture of himself for the reader.

    Everything from his use of slang to help create and strengthen his voice (a voice which you’ll notice is consistent all the way through his acknowledgements at the end of the book) to his transparency in his writing his reflections to his ability to explain but not excuse his past experiences helped to develop himself as a multi-faceted, complex character. I wondered if he had ever read Phillip Lopate’s “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character” because he seemed to know the technique well. I found myself feeling for Senghor when he talked about his children and when he talked about his mother beating him, complicating any feelings I might have had about him being a drug dealer or murderer. I was astounded at how many times Senghor could complicate his character, could surprise me with new actions and thoughts, could go back to being a criminal lacking reason or empathy only to return to humanity again. Furthermore, I was amazed that he was able to do the same for other inmates. Take the situation with the photo of Twins’ girlfriend for example. In this scene, Senghor made me understand how and why they thought that the inmate who stole the photograph deserved to be beaten and convinced me that he and his friends were honorable in how they chose to show their respect for Twins, his girlfriend, and their relationship. This scene is a great example of the whirlwind of “good people do bad things vs. bad people do good things.”


    I also found myself making note of each time that Senghor used a kind of “foreshadowing,” which I typically think of as being a fiction-only technique. I noticed when he would say things like, “Some, he said, wouldn’t make it at all. He didn’t explain hat he meant by that, but it wouldn’t be long before I learned exactly what he was talking about” (86). Sometimes, I think this technique worked in adding suspension to my reading and keeping me hooked, but other times (like this one) I wasn’t sure that this was necessary. I felt that Senghor had already developed the sense that he was young and often naïve, and I don’t feel like I needed him to tell me that he was unaware of suicide or warn me that he was going to attempt it.

    At first, the timeline of the story was a little tricky for me to get the hang of. I already mentioned my questioning the prologue when I was reading the book, but I also questioned the weaving time frame of the narrative at times. At first, I thought the book was simply going back in time only, starting at the turning point in solitary and going back through the night of the shooting, but I quickly noticed that the book went back and forth between his time in jail/prison to his childhood. I wonder if this was difficult for others as well (I know Holly mentioned it also took her a long time to get comfortable with it.), and I wonder if we could’ve been given enough background with a different chronological layout.

    Lastly, I notice the frequent pepperings of Senghor’s commentary about the system (like when he talked about how strange it was that his life and future were being calculated from some numbers on a sheet of paper) and about the history of the drug trade in Detroit throughout the book. I wonder if this commentary was something that he was becoming aware of while he was in the system, if this history is something he knew or learned when he first got into the selling drugs or if these are things he learned about and became aware of later on. I found these pieces of information to be another form of “foreshadowing” as well. Including this commentary let me see what was bubbling in Senghor’s brain and allowed me to connect with the idea that he would be involved in activism and reform before he started talking about it.

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