Shaka Senghor is a leading voice in criminal justice reform and the President and Co-Founder of #BeyondPrisons, an initiative designed to uplift the voices and experiences of those impacted by the criminal justice system. His memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison, was released in March 2016 and debuted on The New York Times Best Seller List as well as The Washington Post Best Seller List.
Shaka is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2016 Ford Man of Courage Award, the 2016 NAACP Great Expectations Award, the 2015 Manchester University Innovator of the Year Award and the 2012 Black Male Engagement (BMe) Leadership Award. He was recently recognized by OWN as a “Soul Igniter” in the inaugural class of the SuperSoul 100, a dynamic group of trailblazers whose vision and life’s work are bringing a higher level of consciousness to the world around them and encouraging others to do the same. Shaka was also a 2014 TED Prize finalist for The Atonement Project, is a former MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, and a current Fellow in the inaugural class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network. He has taught at the University of Michigan and shares his story of redemption around the world.
Let’s start with your latest project, “Writing My Wrongs.” Please tell the readers about what inspired you to write this book.
“Writing My Wrongs” was inspired by my real life experiences growing up in the city of Detroit. I grew up in a very abusive household. I ran away and ended up getting into the drug culture. I experienced every imaginable horror that comes along with that culture. My childhood friend was murdered, I was robbed at gunpoint, and I was shot when I was just 17 years old.
Sixteen months after I was shot I was involved in a similar conflict over a drug transaction gone bad. I ended up firing four fatal shots at a man, and was subsequently sentenced to 17 to 40 years in prison.
A lot of times inner city kids are judged unfairly. Therefore, I wanted to give the community a book that showed what can happen to a young inner city kid coming up in the judicial system. I really wanted to take people behind the curtain. A lot of people think they know what our judicial system is about, but they don’t. I also wanted to show the impact of solitary confinement on people, and the level of mental illness that exists in that environment.
Can you explain the process of bringing and getting your books to print from prison?
I published my first book “Crack: Volume 1” while I was still in prison. I started writing while I was in solitary confinement. I did it the old school way with pen and pad. When I got out, I typed it on an old school word processor. I pooled my resources together with Ebony, who was my partner at the time, and we published our first book. She found a graphic artist to do the cover, and oversaw the technical side of getting the book from typewriter to a word document. We found a printer that we enjoyed working with, and we printed the first book from prison in 2008. I got sued by the Dept. of Corrections right after I published the book. They sued me for the cost of my incarceration, which was $1 million, but I got through it. That was how we got our first book out.
You served 19 years in prison for murder and 7 years in solitary confinement. How did you stay mentally strong throughout this ordeal, and how did you stay inspired to the point that you could reach this level of success after being released?
I met some incredible mentors while I was in the joint. They introduced me to books and authors I had never heard of - Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, and other urban writers from the 60's and 70's. Those books helped me to stay inspired and led me to read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” After reading that I knew I could come out of prison with a purpose in life. The more books I read, slowly but surely, my prison exterior began chipping away. I started taking writing seriously while I was in solitary confinement. I started journaling, and during that time is when I knew I wanted to do something different with my life.
As a person behind bars for so many years, clearly re-acclimating yourself to society is far from easy. Is there anything you wish you would have known or been told before your release?
I wish I had known more about the law, as it pertained to employment. Getting out of prison after 2 decades, I thought society would be more forgiving and people would be more open to someone who made mistakes, but that wasn't the case. Also, I didn't know that if you have a felony, you could be discriminated against when it came to housing. It was extremely frustrating to find affordable housing, but I couldn't get it because of my past. There was just a lack of resources to help me transition back into society.
What advice would you give to inmates who are about to re-enter society?
Start working on re-entering society well before you're released. Map out exactly what you want to do and set realistic goals for yourself. Also, understand that you have to be patient when you get out, and you will have to work harder than everyone around you to prove yourself. If you have an entrepreneurial skill-set start studying business and investing while you’re still inside so that you can be prepared for life outside of prison.
What advice would you give to other prison authors or first time novelists?
It takes a lot of work to be successful. There are no shortcuts to success. The book itself is only part of the story, but the other side is your grind. So, hone your craft and take it serious. Learn both the business side and the publishing side that comes along with being a writer. Study the greats and read books from authors who you normally wouldn't read. The more you read, the more you will understand how to use words. Make sure your work is authentic, compelling, and well-written. Don't overwrite, you don't have to flex your vocabulary. Big words don't make good writing.
I encourage people to start independently. If you have the grind it can lead to a major publishing deal. As an independent author, I know what it’s like to be rejected by book stores and publishers. I still have a letter from the joint that I sent to Teri Woods Publishing when I got rejected. They didn't think the book I sent was good for the model they had. I didn't take it personally, and I have no animosity. Being an independent author can be discouraging. So, stay focused on your goal and your dream.
Lastly, move the haters out of your circle. Not just your personal circle, but even out of your social media circle.
I’ve seen you on TV programs, doing appearances, and hanging out with celebrities. All those years ago in prison, did you ever dream you would be so successful?
Definitely! When I examined how I landed in prison, I realized that much of it was due to what I thought and how I saw myself. When you grow up in an environment that tells you that you can only be one dimensional, you live your life like that. We tend to shrink ourselves based on other people's low expectations of us. However, I didn't just want to be a prison writer, I wanted to be one of the best in the world, period. I would write down and meditate on what I wanted. I wrote down that I wanted to sit down with Oprah and to be interviewed by her, I said I wanted to be a NY Times bestselling author. I believe in talking into existence what you want in your life. In order to be the best you have to be tested by the best, who better to read your book than Oprah Winfrey?
As a person who is big on the law of attraction and developing your mindset, what are some books that you read and who are some people who inspire you now?
As far as books - "Think And Grow Rich" and "As a Man Thinketh,” are books that have inspired me. The Hip Hop culture has also had a profound influence on my life. When I growing up, there was no Hip Hop in the traditional sense. Seeing how Hip Hop has evolved from the 70's into the 2000’s, when artists started taking ownership of their business and their art. That inspired me to be a businessman. I was impressed with Jay-Z's business model and Nas as far as his ability to use words. I looked to those guys as inspiration to think into existence what I wanted. They've both been told they would never make it out of the projects - I’ve also been told the same thing. These two men made something of their lives and influenced pop culture in a way no one thought they could. I also like 50 Cent and many other writers such as, Sister Souljah, and Teri Woods. Even though we have a different trajectory for our writing, they made their way in the industry when no one would pick them up. They did it themselves, and I respect that.
I’m curious, if your life story was ever turned into a movie, what actor would you want to play you? Why?
I get asked that a lot, [My life] actually is being turned into a limited series. It’s hard to imagine someone playing the many phases of my life though. My cousin has played me on the stage before. He would play a younger me very well. However, the prison me is tough. So the question I would ask myself is, “Do you go for someone who looks similar or someone who really has the acting chops to bring the story to life?” I could go with the traditional Edris Elba or Las Alonzo, who would both crush the role. Even though we look nothing alike, I would want my man Kofi [Siriboe] from “Queen Sugar” to play me. He is a dope young actor.
“Writing My Wrongs” is a New York Times best-seller, correct? In your words, what does it take to become a New York Times best-selling author?
I think it’s a combination of building relationships with your readers, and your potential readers. As well as, smart marketing strategies and a great support network who can really help you get your work out there. Also, you have to do the big interviews, the little interviews, and the in-between interviews. I tell authors, don't try to just jump to the Oprah interview. You have to go through the steps.
You will see I interviewed with everyone from people with thousands of interviews under their belt, to people with just 3 interviews. I treated them all the same because they are still buying books, and they are spreading the word about my work. Plus, it’s always good to support another entrepreneur.
What does the future hold for Shaka Senghor?
I currently have a show that I’m producing on “Own” called "Released." I’m hoping we get picked up for another season. Also, sometime in 2018, I'm going to write a monologue show for the stage. Aside from that, I’m going to continue to develop projects for the screen, the stage, and television. So right now, I’m just working and creating.
Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison
Writing My Wrongs is the story of what came next. During his nineteen-year incarceration, seven of which were spent in solitary confinement, Senghor discovered literature, meditation, self-examination, and the kindness of others—tools he used to confront the demons of his past, forgive the people who hurt him, and begin atoning for the wrongs he had committed. Upon his release at age thirty-eight, Senghor became an activist and mentor to young men and women facing circumstances like his. His work in the community and the courage to share his story led him to fellowships at the MIT Media Lab and the Kellogg Foundation, membership in Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul 100, and invitations to speak at events like TED and the Aspen Ideas Festival.
In equal turns, Writing My Wrongs is a page-turning portrait of life in the shadow of poverty, violence, and fear; an unforgettable story of redemption, reminding us that our worst deeds don’t define us; and a compelling witness to our country’s need for rethinking its approach to crime, prison, and the men and women sent there.
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