Writer heals, transforms through sharing stories

Shaka Senghor spent much of his 19 years in prison reading and writing. That was especially true during his more than four years in solitary confinement, when he structured his days like a student, reading books in particular subjects for blocks of time each morning.

Political science, then African history. The more he read, the more he wanted to read.

And then came the desire to write. He’d always liked to write. But he’d never believed he could be good at it, he said.

No one ever invested in me, he said.


But Senghor wrestled that self-doubt and spent time every day writing by hand. It helped him sort through a past that included physical and sexual abuse, a lack of caring adults in his life, time in the Detroit streets selling drugs, being hit with three bullets, and ultimately taking a man’s life, which resulted in a second-degree murder conviction.

Senghor said he went to prison angry and bitter. The reading and writing changed that, he says. He stopped being angry. He confronted his guilt. Now, he’s thoughtful, ambitious, and driven to inspire the youth in Detroit facing the same challenges he did.

To do that, Senghor is working with students on the campus of the Cody high schools, as well as a Tri-County Educational Center in Southfield, helping them write down their own thoughts and histories; it’s one way to heal and to show kids that their stories, their feelings are important.

So many times our culture tries to crack down on problems by just getting tough on crime, Senghor said. “It doesn’t address though what’s going on in a child’s life that leads them to a place where they make those bad decisions.”

Senghor knows writing can help, because it helped him.

The project is called Live In Peace Digital and Literary Arts Project, after Senghor realized a friend with a T-shirt business was printing new “Rest In Peace” shirts nearly every day to honor another Detroiter killed through gun violence.

That was just wrong, he thought.

“It doesn’t take anything to rest in peace,” he said. ”You’re dead. We need to focus on living in peace.”

The writing project is part of his involvement in the Black Male Engagement initiative, known as the BMe project, which is largely funded through the John and James L. Knight Foundation and Open Society. The project's goal is to tell the truth of what it is to be a black man in America. It has a pilot project here in Detroit.

Black men upload their stories through a Web site, telling whatever it is they want the world to hear. Whatever they share, Senghor said it is filling in the gaps what people assume to be true about the black male story to include tales about black men doing simple – or something not so simple – work to improve their neighborhoods, communities and families.

Senghor shared his story through the project, and by doing so, found himself connected to other men like him, trying to do the best they can where they are, trying to make their voices heard. He was selected as a leader, and now, little more than two years after being released from prison, he’s giving back to youth through the power of writing and gearing up for the release of his self-published memoir, Writing My Wrongs, next month.

It’s an inspiring story, and Senghor knows that there are many other black men of all ages in Detroit with more to tell.

He is hosting a story gathering session at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History on Monday. Any black male can head to the museum to share stories. The hope is that those stories will continue to spread truth, and they’ll also allow more men with visions or inspiration to be folded into the BMe network, where they will find support and even resources like grant dollars.

Whatever stories get shared, the power of sharing them alone can be transformative.

Just ask Senghor.

-- Krista Jahnke is communications officer at The Skillman Foundation. Contact her at kjahnke@skillman.org.