Shaka Senghor
Shawn Lee

Detroit native Shaka Senghor is a rare voice in the fight against mass incarceration and extreme violence in many black communities. The onetime drug dealer, who was shot at age 17 and sentenced to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder at age 19 with one child and another on the way, has used every bit of his time since his release in 2010 to raise awareness about much-needed prison reform and, more importantly, the need to disrupt young people’s path to prison in the first place.

To amplify his mission, the former MIT Media Lab Director’s fellow, who is among the leadership of #Cut50, a bipartisan initiative to reduce the prison population by 2025, has released his memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison. The Root caught up with Senghor, known to some for his 2014 TED Talk, “Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You,” to discuss why his experience in prison matters, how having fathers present isn’t enough to prevent incarceration, coming to terms with child abuse at the hands of his mother, and more.

The Root: What was the motivation for this book?

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Shaka Senghor: There were actually several motivating factors. I think the first and most important is that I really want people to understand what’s happening to so many young men and women throughout the country who get caught up in these environments where there are extremely high levels of gun violence, high levels of mass incarceration; and to help people really understand that post-traumatic stress disorder is real and that we can do something about it if we are willing to look at the root causes as opposed to getting so excitable about the effects.

TR: You detail life prior to prison and during prison. Why?

SS: For me, when you think about that there are over 2 million people incarcerated in our country and that we incarcerate more people in this country than anybody else in the civilized world, yet we know so little about the environment, and for years, we’ve trusted politicians and prison officials to keep our communities safe. And the expectation was that by locking people up, that our communities would be a lot safer. But when you understand the inner workings of the prison system, you realize relatively quickly that’s just not the case, because hurt people hurt people. And when you put people in a volatile environment with no rehabilitative outlets, the logical outcome is that those people will get out and do further harm to the community, if not to themselves.

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And I also wanted to really highlight some things I think that are really important that has happened on our watch. There is a high level of mental illness, and mental illness has been criminalized in this country. And when you think about those factors that we are not aware of, that should be alarming to anybody who cares about the community that they live in.

TR: You had a loving, supportive father, and in the black community, we are so often told that the absence of fathers is related to the high incarceration rate of young black men.

SS: I think that’s misinformation. I mean, the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] just proved that black fathers are a lot more present than they get credit for. But the reality is that, when it comes to child-rearing, both parents play very critical roles in a child’s development, and there are things that children need from both parents—love and affection, protection; you know, all the basic necessities that it requires to get them to adulthood. And, unfortunately, in my instance, my father has always been a presence in my life, but I also had a mother who was suffering from some severe mental issues that allowed her to abuse her children, and my father was complicit in that in a lot of ways.

I think what makes my father and my relationship work is that as a man, he was honest enough to step back from that experience and admit the areas where he failed, not only me, but my siblings. So while he was present, my father worked every day. My mother was the primary caretaker, which meant that she was the one who was home with us, and she didn’t always relay the information about what she was doing to my father. It takes both parents, and it’s really important. There are households where you have abusive parents of both genders. So just being present isn’t enough; it’s what you do when you’re present that matters.

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TR: It is particularly bold to share the story about your mother, because the black mama is just hands off for a lot of people.

SS: And I think part of the problem in our community is that we aren’t honest about a lot of things that happen. We have high levels of sexual abuse that play out every day in black households, and then we don’t talk about it. We have high levels of mental illness that play out in black households, and we relegate it to somebody just tripping or somebody just being a little bit crazy. And so, when it comes to abuse, and child abuse, we don’t even call it abuse. …

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When you hit your child out of anger, out of frustration, unprovoked at times, that’s child abuse. When we look at the high levels of violence in our community, we talk about the absentee fathers, but we ignore the reality that there is this domineering-mother mentality that exists in a lot of households that are highly abusive due to their disenchantment with their male counterparts.

Oftentimes, women will take out on their male children things based on the relationship that they had with the father or the absentee father, whatever the case may be. It’s tough for us to talk about, but for me, when I talked to my mother about the book, what I explained to her is that my responsibility ultimately is to the young men and women that I mentor and that I work with and who I see going through those same struggles. And their success in life, and their need to heal at this young age, is much more important than how she feels about something she did in the past.

Obviously, it took me years before I could even call it child abuse. And while it was hard to have that conversation, I don’t think that my story would be that impactful if I was dishonest about something that really happened to me in my past.

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TR: Talk about the dysfunctionality outside the household.

SS: I grew up in a very violent environment. Drug culture was extremely violent. I live in Detroit. Detroit, for years, has been one of the most violent cities in the nation. My mother has three sons; all of us have been shot. One of my brothers has been shot multiple times; he’s currently paralyzed. A total of eight men in my family have been shot. So when you grow up with that reality, when your childhood friends are getting murdered and shot over trivial things, that has a profound impact on you as an evolving teenager.

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TR: That’s playing out in a lot of communities. The trauma is so real, and a lot of people don’t know how to deal with it.

SS: It’s so real, and the thing is, we haven’t even called it trauma. When you leave it up to other people to define your community, you know you’re at their mercy, because he who defines the thing controls the thing. When you talk about what children are experiencing every day in these communities, that’s seriously psychological trauma, and to not identify it and not be honest about it, we can never fix it. I got shot 20-something years ago, and there are still remnants of that that play out every day … and so, if I’m experiencing that 20-something years later, imagine what a kid who lives on the block where this is a daily occurrence. Imagine what they are experiencing.

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TR: So, ultimately, what do you want people to get?   

SS: What was shocking to me is that the prison I left was in better condition than the first school [where] I went to mentor. That speaks volumes about our investment when it comes to the quality of life in our communities. If you’re investing more in lockups than you are in educational opportunities, then clearly you’re doing something wrong, you’re doing something backwards. My thing is that I want to challenge people; I want to push people outside of their comfort zone and make them really take an honest look at our prison system, as well as everything that’s happening in our communities.

Editor’s note: Shaka Senghor’s book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison is available now.

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Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.