“As I sat there puffing on my cigarette, I began having the most negative dialogue with myself. I thought about every beating I had endured at the hands of my mother. I thought about the day she hurled a cast iron pot at my head after I asked her a question. I thought about how my brothers treated me, and how they never stood up for me. I thought about everything I could think of to make myself more miserable until I had worked up the courage to reach beneath the mattress and grab the sawed-off shotgun.”
—From Writing My Wrongs, by Shaka Senghor
Just after he turned 19, Shaka Senghor was sentenced to 17 to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder. He never denied his crime. Four years of living on the streets of Detroit’s west side, dealing drugs and carrying weapons, had changed the one-time-honor roll student into an angry young man who readily blamed everyone for where he ended up.
And during his first eight years in prison, Shaka stayed that way: Bitter, resentful, violent. Quick to react negatively to the slightest slight from a guard or inmate. “I literally woke up rebellious,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to take responsibility. And I had deep-rooted hurt because of the [physically and verbally abusive] relationship with my mother, growing up on the streets, and being a victim of gun violence.”
Released after serving 19 years, Shaka has changed again. He’s seen it all, and openly shares those details in his memoir, Writing My Wrongs. He can’t reclaim the hopeful boy he was before he sold his first rock of crack-cocaine at age 14, but he has undergone a self-induced redemption that seems the stuff of fairy tales. But neither luck nor magic had anything to do with the six books he’s written. Or his appointment as a fellow at MIT Media Lab. Or his TED Talk. Or his upcoming teaching engagement at the University of Michigan.
“It’s not the normal trajectory for a former felon,” Shaka says. “But it’s normal for me because I think positively of where I want to be in life. If more people did that, they’d have more positive outcomes.”
He admits his outcomes aren’t perfect. “I’m still working on basic standards of living,” he says, after two and a half years on the outside. But his approach is unwavering: “I focus on where I want to go, my thoughts coincide, and my actions get me there.”
Breaking the negativity loop
If Shaka’s childhood experiences laid the foundation for a negative thought loop, prison cemented it. “I fed that negativity every day. Anything could be a trigger. Whenever the officers didn’t help me or I didn’t get mail, it reinforced it. I didn’t feel lovable, like I didn’t have any value.”
His reactions landed him in solitary confinement for a total of seven years, once for four and a half years straight. During his final stay there, he realized he was “tired of myself moping around. I thought ‘Dude, get yourself together. Man up. Deal with it. Life isn’t over. You can accomplish something.’ ”
So he turned his attention toward books. The stories he read — stories of people such as Nelson Mandela who overcame extreme hardship — began to prick his consciousness. “[Mandela] was incarcerated for 27 years, and he did it with courage and dignity. Here’s a man who stood up for something. And here I am complaining about some dumb shit that I did,” Shaka says.
His shift, as Shaka calls it, was gradual. He read, and reread. He journaled and wrote his own stories. By processing his emotions through writing, his outlook became more positive — and he was able to influence some of his fellow inmates, which Shaka believes was critical to his transformation.
“Normally, positive thinking is frowned upon as weak [in prison],” he says. “One of the things that made it more acceptable was when I was negative, you never had to question me because I was consistent. I earned a lot of respect in that environment, so when I started making the shift, I was able to bring more guys along. At the heart, we weren’t negative people. We just gave into it. Now we were able to tap into the core of who we really are.”
He refers to his group as “accountability partners,” who shared and discussed what they read. But most important, they were “people who care enough about you to get on your ass” if they saw you going the wrong way.
Fighting to stay true to himself
“Getting out of prison, I was super excited to conquer the world, but the reality wasn’t that simple,” Shaka says. “There are a whole lot of things you have to learn relatively quickly if you’re going to survive and keep up with the world. It’s overwhelming at times.”
Back in Detroit, he definitely felt the pull of the streets, with its fast money and fancy cars. “Making the right decision to move forward is not easy,” Shaka says. “I have to dig deep inside and figure out ‘What are my core values? How does this conflict with the negative thinking of the street?’ ”
Like in prison, he didn’t keep it to himself: “We have this go-it-alone mentality. That is really sad. I surround myself with people who challenge me. When they know I’m talking against my values, they say something.”
Recently, those values were put to the test.
One of Shaka’s female cousins was abducted and assaulted by someone the family knows, knocking out all her teeth. “My immediate reaction was straight street: very protective,” Shaka says. “Beating women is not acceptable. Beating on a family member is really not acceptable. So I thought ‘I got to beat this guy and teach him a real lesson.’ ”
Then Shaka thought about what that would mean for his role in the community, as a father, and as a cousin. Beating someone up, no matter how well-deserved, was not where he wanted to go.
“I had to counter that with positive affirmations. It was very tough, because it brought me to tears to think about this beautiful young lady and how he knocked out her teeth.”
So instead of reacting with violence, Shaka set up a Facebook page to raise awareness about domestic violence and promote a cabaret event in August to raise money for his cousin. The theme is “He Gave Me Flowers,” based on the poem about the dangers of abusive relationships.
“The biggest thing now is to support her,” he says. “I’m the male that the family looks to for guidance. It keeps me grounded.”
Shaka’s positive MO
During his last nine years in prison, Shaka developed his own approach to making his life better. He worked hard at it — reading every book in the prison library, feverishly writing on any piece of paper he could find. He learned to let go of the negative thoughts that put him in a place he never wanted to be, replacing them with aspirations.
In short, he says his best tactics, ones he continues to use today, are:
- Look outside yourself. “Sometimes it’s hard to see yourself clearly. It’s easier to get caught in the emotional side. At those moments, if you look to other people in similar situations and see how they handled it, you can be in a more cerebral state and make more logical decisions.”
- Recognize what’s most important to you. “I put things on a scale in terms of what they mean emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When we react in the moment, it helps to do a comparative analysis in your mind to conclude what are the things that are most valuable. Do I spend that last $100 on what I think I want, or in a way that has value in my life experience?”
- Surround yourself with people who will keep you honest. “This is usually the toughest for most people. We like for people to tell us what we want to hear. I’m afraid of those people. I want to hear what I need to hear from a person whose core values I trust.
“It’s been trickier for me outside of prison because people perceive me as being so strong, they don’t know how to approach me or give advice. That can be scary. In life, you pour so much into other people and things, that people forget that you need to have things poured back into you. You have to be clear to people about what you want to get out of life and how they can support you in it.”
- Meditate. “I started to seriously meditate around 2000 in solitary confinement. One of the things I love is it made me embrace the negative thoughts. Instead of acting like they don’t exist, recognize they are your thoughts, let them run their cycle, then affirm with positive thoughts. You don’t have to sit on the beach with crossed legs to do it. You can do it while you walk. I have a running narrative in my head that helps me figure out what makes the most sense at the end of the day.”
- Understand your triggers. “In life you will have patterns of negative thinking. If you can recognize that in yourself and how it spirals out of control, you can put yourself back on the path.
“Typically, one thing goes wrong and people start reflecting on everything that goes wrong. It creates a whole cycle, and if you don’t have anything to break out of that, you become a victim of your own thinking.”
- Be mindful of the messages you hear. “We take in so much information in our day-to-day lives. A lot of times, we don’t stop to challenge that information. All of it is some form of messaging. I am conscious of the music I listen to, the people I’m with, what I watch. If you subconsciously listen to music, you may not realize what is feeding into your spirit.”
Leading change in the ’hood
After his release, Shaka began visiting Detroit-area schools, where he found kids who mirrored his youth: “I see a lot that I went through, battered or neglected, being victims of violence.” So he made it his job to broaden their view from limitation to possibility.
His strategy: Challenge with empathy. “I put myself in their shoes. What is it like to be 13 years old and your mother’s a crack addict? I talk from a position of how they feel. I tell them it’s okay to have feelings and thoughts about it. That opens them up and they’re more receptive. They realize they’re not alone, thinking that no one else really gets it.
“When you pull their self-esteem up, kids will float. Positively affirming the best in them. Even to the kids in gangs, I don’t say ‘Your gang is whack.’ Instead I say, ‘Let me understand why you think these people should be in control of your destiny instead of you being in control of your destiny?’ ”
And that is the crux of Shaka’s message, to himself and to the world: “No one cares if your mama is on the main strip selling her body right now. No one cares what you have to do to make your life. Take the excuses off the table.”
His mission is now formalized as the 12-week Live in Peace Digital and Literary Arts Project. Just as he used writing to process his state of mind, he helps students address their emotional, physical, and sexual abuse through writing to turn their hurt into hope.
“I think we underestimate positive thinking and where it can take you,” says Shaka. “I believe the more positive you think, the more positive you attract.” And he would know.
Watch Shaka’s talk at this spring’s Personal Democracy Forum in New York City about his redemption and how technology can help inmates make a better transition back into society.