9781101907290By Shaka Senghor, author of Writing My Wrongs (Convergent Books, January 2017).

Although I grew up in the ’80s in a very different era, I can still relate to many of the challenges our youth face today. By the time I turned seventeen years old, gun violence had become a normal part of my life. I watched many of my childhood friends and family members get gunned down in the streets. When I was fourteen, my older brother shot my oldest brother in the neck; at fifteen, my childhood friend was shot to death; at sixteen, my older brother was shot, and years later was shot again, this time leading to his paralysis from the waist down; and at the age of seventeen, I was shot several times while standing on the corner in my neighborhood. By the time I turned nineteen, I had been surrounded by so much violence that I became desensitized to it. I didn’t value life—mine or others’—and was quick to anger. I often resorted to violence to handle conflicts and saw my pistol as the “peacemaker.” Years later, when I found myself serving time in prison for second-degree murder, I realized how distorted my thinking was and knew that it was up to me and others like me to break this destructive cycle in our community.

When I returned home from serving nineteen years in prison, I quickly discovered that not much had changed. Just over a year after my homecoming, two of my nephews were shot and one of my childhood friends was gunned down in broad daylight, marking another long and bloody summer for Detroit. Sadly, the gun violence I had witnessed in my youth was just as prevalent nineteen years later.

The sight of mothers crying out for their murdered children, teddy bear vigils to honor the dead, and community members marching and rallying in the name of peace, aroused the activist in me. As I reflected on the tragedy of my youth and the destructive path that led me to prison, I knew that there was no greater time than now to use my voice and the power of literature to counteract the culture of gun violence that is robbing our youth of their innocence and virtually holding our communities hostage. I wrote Writing My Wrongs so that no other youth would have to live with the burden of taking someone else’s life; so that no other youth would feel alone or misunderstood; so that no other youth would have to live out their most promising years in a prison cell. Saving their lives makes the pain of telling my story worth it.

I’ve been a mentor and big homie to many misguided and angry youth who, like me, had been victims and perpetrators of gun violence but had not adequately dealt with the trauma of their experiences. It wasn’t until years into my incarceration—and much self-reflection and analysis—that I realized I suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when I got shot at seventeen. Angry and afraid, I reacted to my personal trauma, and the accumulative effect of witnessing high levels of violence, by carrying a gun with me every day. Through journaling, I discovered that I had emotional trauma from my childhood and my life in the streets that I had failed to process in a healthy way. When I realized what I was experiencing, I had an “aha” moment and recognized that there were countless young men and women in our community going through the same thing. Ultimately, this unprocessed emotional trauma is at the root of the violence we see.

It is my hope that by sharing my experiences and, more importantly, giving students an opportunity to share theirs, they will begin the healing process and unpack the pain that keeps them imprisoned in fear, anger, and hopelessness.