Shaka Senghor spent 19 years of his life in prison after being convicted for murder. At the time of his release, he was 38 years old and had spent nearly half his life behind bars. The Detroit native became a writer in prison and turned his thoughts and memories into this incredible autobiography of his life which could be a case study of the path a young man takes in a life of crime and the redemption that can be found inside the walls of a prison. The City of Detroit stands out as one of America’s greatest tragedies. The one time mecca of the automobile industry, Detroit has steadily declined and become a haven for crime, poverty and lack of hope. And as new president takes office, some are filled with optimism that Detroit can rebound from its dismal state and regain the prominence it once had.
Stories about life in prison are never easy to listen to. The recollections told by former inmates reveal the brutal life inside of a correctional facility. Murder, assault, rape and extortion are daily realities that test the sanity of even the most balanced prisoner. But what happens when a young man who is barely old enough to drink, enters the American penal system? Shaka Senghor’s story is gripping from beginning to end and helps the reader to understand the true nature of incarceration and its devastating effects on the prisoners and their loved ones. Senghor could have easily become just another statistic inside the penal system. Thousands of young African-American men enter prison at a young age and spend a majority of their lives behind bars. And when they are released later in life, several decades has passed and they struggle with integration back into society. No doubt, his story is one of success but his battle for freedom did not come easily and I assure you that once you begin this book, you will find it nearly impossible to put down.
To say that it is incredible that he is still alive today is an understatement. By all estimates, he should have died many years ago. But I believe that his fate was not to die a senseless death but to survive and write this phenomenal book that just might change the lives of those who read it whether they are on the streets in a life of crime or currently incarcerated. As he traces his beginnings to his childhood , we see the chain of events that are put into place beginning with the separation of his parents. He is introduced to the streets and before 16 years of age, a known drug dealer in the neighborhood. Fast money, status and power are in his hands but a chance encounter with a regular customer changes his life forever and for many years, he would struggle to come to terms with the events of that day.
Those who remember the HBO drama Oz will feel reminded of that show as they read this book. His memories show the ugliest parts of prison life and the descriptions of what happened are frank and to the point. Some may shy away but in order to feel the power behind his words, it was necessary on his part to tell the stories as they happened with their gritty details involved. By telling the stories in this way, his transformation into the man we see today becomes even more remarkable. I cannot imagine that it was easy for Senghor to write this book but as he explains, writing became one of the tools he used to maintain his sanity and express his emotions. And he would use writing as a means to gain his freedom after a long 19 years behind bars.
The beauty in this book is not only that he earned and gained his freedom, but in the process he reinvented himself and dives into the many social issues that have plagued minority communities for decades. As a product of a broken home, he maintains a distinction as a first hand witness to the tragic results of dysfunction in the home. His entry into a prison system with disproportionate demographics, helps to reinforce the notion that young Black and Hispanic men and women far too often fall victim to the prison system and its draconian design that attempts to strip individuals of their human existence. Senghor spent nearly five years in solitary confinement, a punishment which is purely designed for isolation and to break the mind and spirit of the inmate. Miraculously, he does not break and strengthens his resolve to one day walk out of prison a free man. His discovery of literature is a shining moment in the book. Authors and figures such as Huey P. Newton, George Jackson, Assata Shakur and Angela Davis flood his consciousness with words that help him understand his existence in prison and his life in America. Their writings prove to be invaluable in his transformation and emotional development as they provide a source of pride and hope in an environment full of toxic elements and deadly characters. His discovery of he Muslim faith is a story similar to that of other men of color who have experienced life inside of a prison and in search of an eternal creator.
Having found this book by accident, I can say that it is one of my best mistakes. His life is an incredible journey so if you have time to spare, grab a seat and follow Shaka from his childhood in Detroit to his life on the street, fatherhood, incarceration, awakening and finally redemption with success mixed in. In the end it is a feel good story that originates on the worst of circumstances. But he reminds us that we have control over our actions, words and destiny. The key is that we have to be willing to open our eyes, expand our horizons and reevaluate the path that we have taken in life.