Shaka Senghor: Redemption Realized

hen I first meet with Shaka Senghor, he’s on the verge of becoming a bestselling author. He just doesn’t know it at the time. After all, 25 years ago, he was a convicted murderer.

Senghor has just given a presentation to several high school students at the Charles H. Wright Museum. He has another engagement to prepare for later that day. Press is rolling in about the soon-to-be-bestseller, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison. The previous weekend, a taped interview with the Oprah Winfrey just aired on the cable network that bears her name.

All this from a regular-speaking dude who spent 19 years in prison, some of which were in solitary confinement.

Writing My Wrongs details the journey before all this hullaballoo. Born James Angelo White, Senghor says he was an honor-roll student before getting caught up in the streets of crack-ravaged eastside Detroit. Two years after being shot himself, he shot someone else. That person died. White was 19.

In 2010, now known as Senghor, he was released. Armed with years of reading, learning and reflecting, Senghor took his message of prison reform on the road. Senghor told his story to BLAC two years ago as founder of The Atonement Project, which deals with how convicts can make amends for their crimes. In 2016, his messages resonate stronger-particularly as even more youth in metro Detroit are at risk of going down an unfortunately well-worn path.


“I really just want to inspire people to see young people differently,” Senghor says. “People need to see the genius, the potential, the progress and the resiliency.”

Senghor is a believer in the school-to-prison pipeline, a theory that suggests youth, particularly youth of color, are penalized tougher in classrooms leading to misdirection later in life. “We need to be keeping (children) in school rather than taking them out of school,” Senghor says, pointing to no-tolerance rules that often lead to permanent expulsions for students.

When youth land in prison, they are subject to many of the horrors Senghor experienced. Violence. Isolation. Substance abuse. And a not-as-talked about-but common inside cell walls-pervasion: Failure to diagnose mental illnesses.

Upon release, former convicts face troubles at home, too. “It’s important for families to be empathetic and understanding,” Senghor says. That patience is necessary when finding a job; most felons are unable to work because employers do not hire those convicted of a crime. “We should definitely ban the box,” he says, referring to an area on employment applications.

As Senghor goes through his travels, he’s overwhelmed with the “outpouring of support from people who have opened up about their own healing.” His wish list includes writing more, maybe writing screenplays, and speaking out in favor of criminal justice reform.

But above all, it’s making sure that one person is not defined by what he calls “the worst moment in your life.” Senghor has already been through the worst. After we talk, he’ll post the news on Facebook the next day: Writing My Wrongs has landed on the New York Times’ best-seller list. The best moments are here.

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