By all rights, Shaka Senghor’s story should not have gone like this. At 19, he was a crack cocaine dealer who shot a man to death in Brightmoor during an argument. James White, as he was born and known then, went to prison for second-degree murder for 19 years, seven of which he spent in solitary confinement. He emerged at 38 in 2010 to face the often-crushing challenge of integrating into society as a felon. Senghor has done so — and much more. While in prison, he realized he had a raw gift for communicating, both as a writer and a speaker. Immediately upon release, he began hustling self-published books and seeking out forums to talk about the importance of redemption, atonement, and second chances.
Twelve years later, he’s a well-known prison reform advocate who has penned a New York Times bestselling memoir about life behind bars, given a TED Talk, met with President Barack Obama, been interviewed on TV by Oprah Winfrey and Trevor Noah, and performed on a Grammy-nominated record by Nas. Senghor, 50, who moved to Los Angeles in 2016, is now a sought-after speaker and author in addition to head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the travel company Trip Actions. He spoke to Hour Detroit about his new book, Letters to the Sons of Society: A Father’s Invitation to Love, Honesty, and Freedom, published earlier this year.
Hour Detroit: This new book is a series of letters to your sons, Jay, whose childhood took place while you were in prison, and Sekou, born when you were getting out. Why did you choose this approach?
Shaka Senghor: I’m a dad, and when I was incarcerated for 19 years, my dad was the most consistent person in my life. That consistency showed up in the form of the letters he wrote me in between the visits. My dad wrote beautiful longhand letters that really helped develop our relationship. We wrote back and forth, we argued, we debated, we affirmed each other, we lifted each other up during the most difficult time of my life, in some of the most difficult moments in his life. In my darkest moments, I would go back and read those letters from my dad. But also, I am honoring the great legacy of well-written letters that we have as part of the literary canon. Some of my favorite stories and lessons have come from letters of great writers.
In the opening of the book, you write that the two of you wrote hundreds of letters discussing the difficulties and joys of being Black in America. We generally focus on the difficulties, so what are some of the joys?
That’s a great question. And I’m really happy you asked it because I do think we only filter the experience of Black men through our traumatic encounters with the world as we know it. And there are tons of things to be excited about: the way we move through the world, the way we’ve inspired the world with our uniqueness, with our swagger — to know I can walk in it, I can live in that. When you grew up in a country that is so polarized from a racial dynamic, but then you have the very lived experience of having a diverse group of friends. We’ve contributed so much to the world, and oftentimes, we’re not credited for it, or we’re not seen for it, if it doesn’t fit into a neat box. But there’s joy in that, there’s love in that, there’s laughter in that. I’m a writer from the hood. And not just a writer, but I’m a writer whose work has spanned across the globe and whose work has influenced the political world, the activism world, and now the tech world. There’s joy in that, to know that the stories I tell, the way that I tell them, the poetry of my writing, resonates with people from everywhere, and that my truth speaks to people even when they’re not Black or don’t come from a Black experience.
Was there any indication when you were growing up in Detroit that you were a good writer?
You know, when I was going to school, I was a good student. I excelled in the world of literature and writing. This was elementary, middle school. I used to tell this story that my writing career started in prison. But at Cooley High School on the west side of Detroit, I was skipping school, my home life wasn’t settled, a lot was going on, and I really had no interest in school at that point, even though I was naturally a good student. But I remember I would speak to this teacher every day and she would always say to me, “You’re such a memorable young man, you’re always nice, you’re kind — why aren’t you in class?” She gave me a book report to do based on To Kill a Mockingbird and I turned it in. And I was sitting at a table just messing around with other students, and she came up to me and grabbed my ear. I’m like, “What are you doing?” She was like, “Why are you wasting your talent? You’re a brilliant writer. You have a great way of expressing yourself.” Then, years later, my family and friends would be like, “Hey, can you write me another letter? You just brought me into that prison world.”
Writing personal letters and writing for publication are different. How did you cross that gap?
A friend of mine asked me to write an article for a paper in prison, and I ended up writing a story about a visit I had just had with my family when I learned my sister was addicted to crack. These two guys found me on the yard. And they both just wanted a hug. And they said my piece reminded them of their experiences. One of my supervisors in the prison asked me if I’d really written it. He took it to his wife, who was an editor of some corporate magazine, and she sent him back with a message that “this guy just has raw talent.”
What was the first thing you did when you came out of prison in 2010?
The first thing was to meet my parole officer. And then, as I walked out of the parole office, I sold my first book in a parking lot to a guy who was incarcerated with me. I had started a publishing company when I was in prison, printed up a bunch of copies of my first novel. And during our last 60 days, I told him that when I got out, I was gonna have some books. He was like, “Man, I believe you’re really going to make it. And I want to buy one of your books.” My son’s mom, she pulled up to the parking lot and she had the books with her. And I sold him a book. His name is Prince Montgomery. And I never forget that day, June 22, 2010. I’ve been selling books ever since.
I was only aware of two nonfiction books you’ve published. What did you sell that day?
I started off writing fiction. I love being able to escape in those worlds as a writer but also as a reader. My first novel is called Crack. It’s a detective novel. I self-published that. It ended up getting picked up by a couple of colleges, and people started calling me to speak. And when I would go, people would say, “You know, you don’t seem like someone who’s been in prison.” And that really bothered me because I thought about my friends who were incarcerated and what people’s perceptions possibly could be for them. And that’s when I decided to write Writing My Wrongs, which I originally self-published as well, and it got picked up. I have some unpublished works that one day I plan to put back out in the world.
You wrote this book, Letters to the Sons of Society, to your sons, and you talk about the challenges young Black men face. Would a book to daughters be different? I’m a white man with a 7-month-old Black daughter. Do I need to know anything particular?
I think the responsibility in the blind spots for white America is that they tend to freeze like deer in the headlights the first time somebody of color says, “Hey, I’m uncomfortable with this because racially, this has a different meaning to me than it does to you.” As a parent, the greatest gift you can give your daughter is your honesty about the things you don’t know, the things you have not experienced. It doesn’t mean you can’t grow to understand it. When you really get down to it, we’re all humans. The greatest gift we can give our children is our truth, our embarrassing moments, the things that were hurtful, our vulnerable moments. That creates that bond and it opens up a real connection. This book isn’t about Black boys. I just happen to have Black boys. It isn’t about me as a Black man. I’m a father. Fatherhood is just as sacred as motherhood, though in a different way.
You’re such a Detroiter. You reference Vernors in the book; you’re wearing a Tigers hat right now! Why do you live in LA?
My heart will always be in Detroit — I’m Detroit to the core but also wanted to pursue my career and pursue opportunities for me creatively and entrepreneurially that weren’t available at home. And as I much as I love Detroit and I love Michigan, there’s something about being able to live in the sun for most of the year. My experiences are shaped by my city. I have incredible friends. They come out here; I come out there. Home will always be home.
As someone who took a tour of the Michigan prison system, in 19 years of incarceration, what are your impressions of it overall?
When I went to prison, we were still able to go to college. I was averaging a 4.0 before they took college out, so I didn’t get a chance to finish my degree. We had more access to family and the community back then. A lot has changed to make it very difficult to communicate with your loved ones. Even basic stuff like sending books to inmates is very difficult now. I just sent some books to some friends and loved ones, and they got rejected because it didn’t have a gift receipt from Amazon. On the flip side, the nation is starting to reconsider this punitive approach to incarceration; there is starting to be some programming in Michigan. As big of an investment as we make as a society in prisons, you would think that we would want more visibility into where our tax dollars are going and what return we’re getting on that investment. Do we want people who have been restored to some wholeness, or do we want people whose trauma has been exacerbated by the reality of their prison experience because it’s so barbaric and archaic?
Why didn’t you come out hardened?
I was fortunate that when I went to prison, I was literate. Literacy changed my life. It helped me understand the traumas I had experienced as a kid. It helped me go through my own therapeutic healing. But that’s not everybody’s experience. And as a society, the onus is on us to ensure that people come home healthy and whole. A lot of people don’t realize that 90 percent of people who go to prison get out.
Any other thoughts about your upbringing and how far you’ve come?
There have definitely been moments where my life has felt so surreal and so extreme. I’ve accomplished a lot in the last 12 years. I’m in an Emmy-winning [series, Super Soul Sunday], on a Grammy-nominated album [Nas’ King’s Disease II]. I’m a bestselling author. I have tons of friends in all these different spaces. I do take a great deal of pride in my writing. I want to be a great writer. Not a great writer for somebody who had been in prison, but a great writer, full stop. That’s what’s important to me on a personal level, that my words are resonant, that the stories I tell are meaningful, that the work I do is impactful.
This story is from the June 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more our digital edition.