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TED2014

Shaka Senghor: Why your worst deeds don’t define you

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In 1991, Shaka Senghor shot and killed a man. He was, he says, "a drug dealer with a quick temper and a semi-automatic pistol." Jailed for second degree murder, that could very well have been the end of the story. But it wasn't. Instead, it was the beginning of a years-long journey to redemption, one with humbling and sobering lessons for us all.

- Author
Using literature as a lifeline, Shaka Senghor escaped a cycle of prison and desperation. Now his story kindles hope in those who have little. Full bio

Twenty-three years ago,
00:12
at the age of 19,
00:15
I shot and killed a man.
00:18
I was a young drug dealer
00:21
with a quick temper
00:23
and a semi-automatic pistol.
00:25
But that wasn't the end of my story.
00:30
In fact, it was beginning,
00:32
and the 23 years since
00:36
is a story of acknowledgment,
00:39
apology and atonement.
00:42
But it didn't happen in the way
00:46
that you might imagine or think.
00:47
These things occurred in my life
00:51
in a way that was surprising,
00:52
especially to me.
00:54
See, like many of you,
00:56
growing up, I was an honor roll student,
00:59
a scholarship student,
01:01
with dreams of becoming a doctor.
01:03
But things went dramatically wrong
01:05
when my parents separated
01:08
and eventually divorced.
01:10
The actual events are pretty straightforward.
01:14
At the age of 17,
01:17
I got shot three times
01:19
standing on the corner of my block in Detroit.
01:21
My friend rushed me to the hospital.
01:26
Doctors pulled the bullets out,
01:28
patched me up,
01:32
and sent me back to the same
neighborhood where I got shot.
01:33
Throughout this ordeal,
01:38
no one hugged me,
01:40
no one counseled me,
01:43
no one told me I would be okay.
01:45
No one told me that I would live in fear,
01:48
that I would become paranoid,
01:51
or that I would react hyper-violently
01:53
to being shot.
01:56
No one told me that one day,
01:59
I would become the person behind the trigger.
02:02
Fourteen months later,
02:06
at 2 a.m.,
02:08
I fired the shots
02:11
that caused a man's death.
02:13
When I entered prison,
02:16
I was bitter, I was angry, I was hurt.
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I didn't want to take responsibility.
02:24
I blamed everybody from my parents
02:27
to the system.
02:29
I rationalized my decision to shoot
02:32
because in the hood where I come from,
02:34
it's better to be the shooter
02:36
than the person getting shot.
02:38
As I sat in my cold cell,
02:41
I felt helpless,
02:45
unloved and abandoned.
02:46
I felt like nobody cared,
02:50
and I reacted
02:54
with hostility to my confinement.
02:56
And I found myself getting
02:59
deeper and deeper into trouble.
03:00
I ran black market stores,
03:02
I loan sharked,
03:05
and I sold drugs that were illegally smuggled
03:08
into the prison.
03:10
I had in fact become
03:12
what the warden of the Michigan Reformatory called
03:13
"the worst of the worst."
03:16
And because of my activity,
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I landed in solitary confinement
03:21
for seven and a half years
03:24
out of my incarceration.
03:26
Now as I see it, solitary confinement
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is one of the most inhumane and barbaric places
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you can find yourself,
03:33
but find myself I did.
03:36
One day, I was pacing my cell,
03:39
when an officer came and delivered mail.
03:42
I looked at a couple of letters
03:47
before I looked at the letter
03:48
that had my son's squiggly handwriting on it.
03:50
And anytime I would get a letter from my son,
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it was like a ray of light
03:55
in the darkest place you can imagine.
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And on this particular day, I opened this letter,
04:00
and in capital letters, he wrote,
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"My mama told me why you was in prison:
04:06
murder."
04:10
He said, "Dad, don't kill.
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Jesus watches what you do. Pray to Him."
04:14
Now, I wasn't religious at that time,
04:20
nor am I religious now,
04:22
but it was something so profound
04:23
about my son's words.
04:26
They made me examine things about my life
04:29
that I hadn't considered.
04:30
It was the first time in my life
04:32
that I had actually thought about the fact
04:34
that my son would see me as a murderer.
04:36
I sat back on my bunk
04:40
and I reflected on something I had read
04:42
in [Plato],
04:44
where Socrates stated in "Apology"
04:46
that the unexamined life isn't worth living.
04:48
At that point is when the transformation began.
04:53
But it didn't come easy.
04:58
One of the things I realized,
05:03
which was part of the transformation,
05:05
was that there were four key things.
05:07
The first thing was,
05:11
I had great mentors.
05:13
Now, I know some of you all are probably thinking,
05:16
how did you find a great mentor in prison?
05:18
But in my case,
05:21
some of my mentors
05:24
who are serving life sentences
05:25
were some of the best people
to ever come into my life,
05:27
because they forced me to look at my life honestly,
05:30
and they forced me to challenge myself
05:33
about my decision making.
05:35
The second thing was literature.
05:37
Prior to going to prison,
05:41
I didn't know that there were so many brilliant
05:43
black poets, authors and philosophers,
05:45
and then I had the great fortune
05:48
of encountering Malcolm X's autobiography,
05:51
and it shattered every
stereotype I had about myself.
05:56
The third thing was family.
06:00
For 19 years, my father stood by my side
06:03
with an unshakable faith,
06:07
because he believed that I had what it took
06:10
to turn my life around.
06:11
I also met an amazing woman
06:14
who is now the mother of
my two-year-old son Sekou,
06:17
and she taught me how to love myself
06:20
in a healthy way.
06:22
The final thing was writing.
06:26
When I got that letter from my son,
06:29
I began to write a journal
06:31
about things I had experienced in my childhood
06:33
and in prison,
06:36
and what it did is it opened up my mind to the idea
06:38
of atonement.
06:42
Earlier in my incarceration, I had received
06:45
a letter from one of the relatives of my victim,
06:47
and in that letter,
06:50
she told me she forgave me,
06:53
because she realized I was a young child
06:55
who had been abused
06:57
and had been through some hardships
06:58
and just made a series of poor decisions.
07:00
It was the first time in my life
07:03
that I ever felt open to forgiving myself.
07:05
One of the things that happened
07:13
after that experience is that
07:14
I thought about the other men who were incarcerated
07:17
alongside of me,
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and how much I wanted to share this with them.
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And so I started talking to them about
07:23
some of their experiences,
07:25
and I was devastated to realize
07:27
that most of them came from
the same abusive environments,
07:29
And most of them wanted help
and they wanted to turn it around,
07:32
but unfortunately the system
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that currently holds 2.5 million people in prison
07:37
is designed to warehouse
07:40
as opposed to rehabilitate or transform.
07:43
So I made it up in my mind
07:47
that if I was ever released from prison
07:49
that I would do everything in my power
07:51
to help change that.
07:53
In 2010, I walked out of prison
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for the first time after two decades.
07:59
Now imagine, if you will,
08:03
Fred Flintstone walking into an episode
08:04
of "The Jetsons."
08:07
That was pretty much what my life was like.
08:09
For the first time, I was exposed to the Internet,
08:12
social media,
08:15
cars that talk like KITT from "Knight Rider."
08:17
But the thing that fascinated me the most
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was phone technology.
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See, when I went to prison,
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our car phones were this big
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and required two people to carry them.
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So imagine what it was like when I first grabbed
08:30
my little Blackberry
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and I started learning how to text.
08:35
But the thing is, the people around me,
08:37
they didn't realize that I had no idea
08:38
what all these abbreviated texts meant,
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like LOL, OMG, LMAO,
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until one day I was having a conversation
08:48
with one of my friends via text,
08:49
and I asked him to do something,
and he responded back, "K."
08:52
And I was like, "What is K?"
08:56
And he was like, "K is okay."
08:59
So in my head, I was like,
09:01
"Well what the hell is wrong with K?"
09:02
And so I text him a question mark.
09:05
And he said, "K = okay."
09:07
And so I tap back, "FU." (Laughter)
09:11
And then he texts back, and he asks me
09:16
why was I cussing him out.
09:17
And I said, "LOL FU,"
09:19
as in, I finally understand.
09:22
(Laughter)
09:23
And so fast forward three years,
09:25
I'm doing relatively good.
09:29
I have a fellowship at MIT Media Lab,
09:31
I work for an amazing company called BMe,
09:33
I teach at the University of Michigan,
09:37
but it's been a struggle
09:39
because I realize that there are more
09:41
men and women coming home
09:42
who are not going to be
afforded those opportunities.
09:44
I've been blessed to work with some amazing
09:47
men and women,
09:49
helping others reenter society,
09:52
and one of them is my friend named Calvin Evans.
09:53
He served 24 years for a crime he didn't commit.
09:58
He's 45 years old. He's currently enrolled in college.
10:01
And one of the things that we talked about
10:04
is the three things that I found important
10:06
in my personal transformation,
10:08
the first being acknowledgment.
10:09
I had to acknowledge that I had hurt others.
10:11
I also had to acknowledge that I had been hurt.
10:14
The second thing was apologizing.
10:17
I had to apologize to the people I had hurt.
10:19
Even though I had no expectations
of them accepting it,
10:21
it was important to do because it was the right thing.
10:23
But I also had to apologize to myself.
10:26
The third thing was atoning.
10:29
For me, atoning meant
10:32
going back into my community
10:33
and working with at-risk youth
10:35
who were on the same path,
10:36
but also becoming at one with myself.
10:38
Through my experience of being locked up,
10:42
one of the things I discovered is this:
10:44
the majority of men and women
10:46
who are incarcerated are redeemable,
10:47
and the fact is,
10:51
90 percent of the men and
women who are incarcerated
10:52
will at some point return to the community,
10:54
and we have a role in determining what kind
10:57
of men and women return to our community.
10:59
My wish today
11:02
is that we will embrace
11:05
a more empathetic approach
11:09
toward how we deal with mass incarceration,
11:11
that we will do away with
11:14
the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality,
11:15
because it's proven it doesn't work.
11:18
My journey is a unique journey,
11:21
but it doesn't have to be that way.
11:24
Anybody can have a transformation
11:27
if we create the space for that to happen.
11:29
So what I'm asking today
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is that you envision
11:34
a world where men and women
11:35
aren't held hostage to their pasts,
11:38
where misdeeds and mistakes
11:41
don't define you for the rest of your life.
11:43
I think collectively, we can create that reality,
11:46
and I hope you do too.
11:49
Thank you.
11:50
(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Shaka Senghor - Author
Using literature as a lifeline, Shaka Senghor escaped a cycle of prison and desperation. Now his story kindles hope in those who have little.

Why you should listen

At the age of 19, Shaka Senghor went to prison fuming with anger and despair. Senghor was a drug dealer in Detroit, and one night, he shot and killed a man who showed up on his doorstep. While serving his sentence for second-degree murder, Senghor discovered redemption and responsibility through literature -- starting with The Autobiography of Malcolm X -- and through his own writing.

Upon his release at the age of 38, Senghor reached out to young men following his same troubled path, and published Live in Peace as part of an outreach program bringing hope to kids in Detroit and across the Midwest. His activism attracted the attention of the MIT Media Lab, and as a Director’s Fellow, Senghor has collaborated on imagining creative solutions for the problems plaguing distressed communities. His memoir, Writing My Wrongs, was published in 2013.

More profile about the speaker
Shaka Senghor | Speaker | TED.com