In 1991, at the age of 19, Shaka Senghor was convicted of second-degree murder. In many ways, the shooting was inevitable. Fleeing an abusive household, Senghor ran away at 13 and entered the “crack cocaine trade.” At 17, he was shot. After two days, he was back on the street, “angry, sad, bitter, paranoid, and afraid.” Sixteen months later, during an altercation over a drug deal, he fatally shot another man. He was sentenced to 17 to 40 years.
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the New York State Writers Institute hosted Senghor, now an author, motivational speaker, and prison reform activist, at the University at Albany. Senghor to campus as the keynote speaker for the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. During his lecture, “Your Worst Deeds Do Not Define You,” which packed the Campus Center Ballroom, he spoke about his life, his time in prison, and how he used writing to carve a path out of the anger, fear, and confusion that consumed him for so many years.
In his nearly two decades in prison, he found solace, direction, and purpose through mentors, who taught him that he had a responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless; reading, which opened his mind to the possibility of redemption; and writing, which helped him examine his life, his decisions, and his future. “I used writing to pull myself out of the anger that led to prison and stopped me from reaching my full potential,” he says. Senghor spoke about reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and how he these seminal works and others persuaded, cajoled, and inspired him to challenge himself to change his perspective. Taking his cue from Plato’s Apology, where Socrates proclaims “an unexamined life is not worth living,” Senghor set out to take stock of his life. “I hadn’t been living, I’d been existing. And I’d been existing in this negative narrative that was handed down to me,” he said. After receiving a letter from his 10-year-old son, who had just discovered why his father was in prison, Senghor began to take responsibility for his wrongs, shift the narrative, and reinvent himself.
His bestselling memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, is an account of his incarceration, which included more than seven years in solitary confinement, four and a half of them in one consecutive stretch. When describing his living area, Senghor noted that “solitary confinement is one of the most inhumane and barbaric things we can do to another person. It’s torture.” Since his release, he’s become a prison reform advocate. He’s made it his mission to give back to his community, tell his story, and work to improve the criminal justice system, which as he notes, is “a system is designed to warehouse as opposed to rehabilitate or transform.”
Now, as a speaker, mentor, and author, Senghor is an inspiration to many, including Oprah Winfrey who noted that her interview with Senghor was “one of the best I’ve ever had—not just in my career, but of my life.” During his lecture, he joked about this testimonial, musing on all of the incredible interviews Oprah has conducted, and offered a look-at-me-now quip for all those who told him for years that “he was the worst of the worst.”
On stage, he’s confident, self-aware, and genuine. Right from the start, he captivated the audience with his story. Nothing fancy. No pyrotechnics. No video clips. Just his words. Dressed in jeans, a jacket, and a baseball cap, he wandered the stage. At times, when speaking about solitary, his use of space reinforces the size of the cell. The crowd was silent, still. His performance was authentic, honest, but it was also expertly crafted–the pacing, the slivers of the larger story he chose to share, and the balance of light moments and tragic moments, were all designed to capture the audience and pull them in. Senghor is a natural storyteller. “Narrative is the greatest way we have to connect to one another,” he told me before the event. “When we share stories, we find commonality.”
As much as Senghor’s story is the personal journey of one man seeking redemption and hope, it is also much larger than one single man. “Mr. Senghor’s story provides us with insight into the challenges faced by many young African American men in urban communities and American prisons,” said Frankie Bailey, UAlbany criminal justice professor and chairperson of the event committee. “His emergence as a leader in the criminal justice reform movement illustrates the capacity of those same men for redemption and growth. His message is about becoming a force for positive change.”
Senghor is a collaborative partner for #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to reduce the prison population in half by 2025. He’s received numerous awards, including the 2015 Manchester University Innovator of the Year Award and the 2012 Black Male Engagement (BMe) Leadership Award. He’s also co-founder of #BeyondPrisons and a 2014 TED Prize finalist.
When asked specifically about prison reform initiatives in the current political climate, Senghor says, “the biggest challenge is to maintain momentum. It’s scary to think that all the hard work we put into creating partnership and a bipartisan approach could get rolled back.” But, even so, he remains optimistic. “After all the choppiness, I hope we can get back to work.” Always introspective, Senghor goes on to say that as a black man from Detroit, he’s used to policymakers not representing his interests. “Lived experience helps me not get caught up in the fray and panic,” he notes. That said, he believes that people are starting to “hear something about each other.” As more and more feel marginalized or unrepresented by the system, there’s an opportunity for people to work together. “In adversity, we band together. In the darkest time, we find our greatest strength.”
Photo provided by the University at Albany