Title: Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison
Published: March 8, 2016
Outside of welfare’s thin wooden doors, secured by a thousand insecure locks, the sound of semi-automatic weapons resonate like a morbid call and response. The cadence had become so familiar that neighborhoods cowered fearfully when nothing except the echo of silence or the solitude of quiet were heard. This is their home. They may never know life beyond those borders.
Detroit, this is Baltimore.
The people who made this block a community are tired.”Once upon a time this neighborhood housed hope and dreams,” said Maurice Fraiser, an elderly man sitting on the yellow painted stone steps in the front of his aging row house. His eyes sagged with sadness. “…was a wonderful place to live. A wonderful place.”
Tired are they whose streets are littered with shell casings, glowing like fireflies beneath flickering blue lights or illuminating like shards of gold and shattered glass. Tired are we of the sound of same melancholy rhythm by the monotonous symphony, played generation after generation. The marauders wore masks. How sorrowful it has indeed become that we know these maleficent marauders so well.
Detroit, this is Bal’rut.
“This country is a monstrosity, and it gives birth to monstrosities,” a lady standing next to me on a Baltimore street corner said. Her thick ‘hon’ accent pasty and cold, as she eyed the matter taking place about seventy-five yards away. A steady wind blew her gray-streaked brown hair into her face several times which she frustratingly twisted into a chignon and tucked within itself. A temporary solution.
A young man, in his late teens or early twenties, sat on the asphalt near the slightly ajar rear door of a squad car. It was mid-March and unseasonably chilly, yet man-boy wore a dingy red tee-shirt with ornate lettering plastered across it. Four officers stood intimidatingly above him at the ready. His thin arms relaxed, cuffed behind him.When he was lifted from his sitting position his jeans sagged nearly to his thighs, exposing ballooning madras printed boxers. Strategically, although cuffed, he pulled them to his waist. His face was solemn but not fearful.
If he pulled his pants up on his ass, combed his hair, and dressed more appropriately, he wouldn’t be in this mess, another woman, older than the first, clucked. Her tone beset the ideology of the unspoken. “It’s a damn shame... a damn shame and waste,” she mumbled.
“To put someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies and now we pray to get paid with brands for our bodies.” — Jesse Williams, BET Awards 2016
America has become the quintessential breeding ground for the infectious incarceration of Black men. INFECTIOUS! The images [of Black men and Black boys], perpetuated by countless years of unconscionable brainwashing, media propaganda, daily sitcoms, “reality television,” and fear, has become such staunch and monumental truth in the eyes of the masses, that the “bestial” caricatures are not only believed but, sadly, expected.
“Was he black?” they mumble.
“Wha’chu think?!” they reply.
Worse still is that stereotype, with little understanding, becomes culture.
The Review: Writing My Wrongs
Shaka Senghor’s memoir, Writing My Wrongs, exemplifies an emotional exposeé, riddled with confessions that enlighten the audience and gives a human face to the incarcerated. What I was expecting was another book of distorted and dehumanizing criminology, basking in some super-imposed and caustically tainted surreal world. The thing is, I got that and much, much more than I imagined. I got an understanding.
The book is straight forward, no smoke and mirrors, optical illusions, or sleight of hand. There is no need for advanced degrees or unabridged dictionaries. Needed is an open mind, and the desire to delve into the place that is misunderstood. Senghor writes from the heart; from a place that he didn’t know existed, and because of that discovery, the sincerity pours from every page.
“I stared at the battle-scarred image in front of me and knew I needed to begin the long, tedious process of making peace with my past. I opened up deep wounds that had been stuffed with the gauze of anger and self-hatred. I forgave all of the people who had teased me in my childhood, making fun of my jack-o’-lantern-sized head by calling me Pumpkin. I forgave everyone who had made fun of my gap-toothed smile. I ran my hand through my long dreadlocks and forgave everyone who ever called me nappy-headed, making me feel insecure about the crown my Creator had bestowed upon me. The words from my past ricocheted around in my mind like errant bullets, hurting no less now than they had back then.”
Senghor’s tale is a familiar one; more familiar, perhaps, if you’re a part of the PoC planet. Familiar, even if you have never lived on that planet. It is inherent; spiritual — transcending caste, gender, and often race. We just understand it better than most. His introduction reveals that there’s a depth to the mentality of the convicted, a depth he knew long before the was behind bars….
“I opened up deep wounds that had been stuffed with the gauze of anger and self-hatred.”
He was the victim, since birth, of suspicion, profiling and humanity; viewed as sub-human and questioned so vehemently that he eventually questioned himself. The beauty is that Senghor did not sweeten the story; he told it, from the guts and grime of his grim reality. He gave the reader, while walking them through chambers of secrets, the gore, and the glorified details, but accepted responsibility for his actions; holding himself accountable while seeking something greater than himself. And because he was so viewed, he opted to fulfill the illusion.
Shaka Senghor explains where and how his psychological odyssey began; of how his mother kicked him out of their home, how he solicited money from strangers to eat and laid his head wherever his head was allowed to lay. He besieged us with a profile of how desperate measures and the need to be a part of some greater ensemble leads to unimaginable outcomes. The reader is made cognizant of matters that draw the path to desperation. Was he always desperate? I cannot say that he was, nor can it be accurately surmised if the lifestyle he chose was fulfilling some greater void. Perhaps, the transformation from pauper to low-level prince provided him a false sense of prosperity and worthiness. But, he equally tells of the functionality and normality of his childhood home. He states that the arguments between his mother and father were, perhaps, no different than those in any other household, until his parent decided to separate.
When he finally explained that he would be moving to a place in Highland Park that coming weekend, all kinds of thoughts began flowing through my young mind — thoughts about my father and all that he meant to our household. I thought about the holidays and how he would organize us kids to put up the Christmas tree. I thought about how he would give us an allowance every other Saturday so that we could go skating at Royal Skateland. I thought about the sound of him pulling into the driveway each night at approximately 11:45 p.m. when he got off work.
I was scared. It was as though everything that symbolized family and stability had been sucked out of the room.
Fear was a lingering theme, an irrefutable manta. Senghor was afraid, even when he showed no fear (murder, solitary confinement, and parole review boards). He was afraid of being a better student, a better son, a better father, and a better man. Issues that festered in his community settled in his head and left him figuratively “sitting shoe-less on the curb with officers standing at the ready” (my words). He wanted what everyone else wanted, yet circumstances of his own creation disallowed him the opportunity.
It was the murder he committed that seemed to be his free-fall spiral of change. As a convicted murderer, the confinement was real. The long prison sentence would have only two outcomes: Constructive or Destructive. He initially took the more common road, but the practice was not worth the punishment. So, he changed course; he discovered books, discovered words, rediscovered himself, and began to write. Fear redirected his path, strongly dictated his destiny, allowed him to succeed in prison, made him invisible and ultimately made him a writer. Fear saved his life.
Shaka Senghor made many people (those who have read his book and those who have listened to his lectures) realize that there exists a human being beneath the orange, yellow, green, gray, or black and white striped jumpsuits. He needed to forgive and be forgiven, to love and be deeply loved in return. Indeed hardened men abound behind bars, but emotions are often more powerful than circumstance. When all seemed lost he found forgiveness and a “ride-or-die” love. Emotions carried him through.
Read Writing the Wrongs. Get entangled in its complex web and enlighten yourself with what might otherwise be dark. It is a redemption song; a symphony of hope, and, even if it doesn’t perfectly fit in your idea of “good literature,” worth excavating for its many hidden treasures.