How Can Someone Move Beyond Murder?

Sep 19, 2014
Originally published on May 6, 2015 2:07 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Transformation.

About Shaka Senghor's Talk

At the age of 19, Shaka Senghor was jailed for shooting and killing a man. That event started his years-long journey to redemption.

About Shaka Senghor

Shaka Senghor went to prison full of anger and despair. While serving his sentence for second-degree murder, Senghor discovered redemption and responsibility through literature and his own writing.

After his release, Senghor reached out to young men following in his footsteps. He published Live in Peace, as part of a program for kids across the Midwest. Senghor also collaborated with the MIT Media Lab to imagine creative solutions for the problems in distressed communities. His memoir, Writing My Wrongs, was published in 2013.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

When we're talk about your life, right, in this life that you once had, does it feel, like, in some way that you and I are talking about a different person?

SHAKA SENGHOR: Yeah. Yeah because often times it feels like I'm flashing back and just, like, wondering what my face looked like back then, wondering, did I ever smile? Because I don't feel like I smiled back then. Just looking back, it's like wow. I can't even believe it sometimes. And I mean, I've had moments where I cried for that young man that I was.

RAZ: This is Shaka Senghor. He's a writer and a mentor to young people in Detroit, where he grew up. And here's how he began his story at TED.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SENGHOR: Twenty-three years ago, at the age of 19, I shot and killed a man. I was a young drug dealer with a quick temper and a semi-automatic pistol. But that wasn't the end of my story. In fact, it was the beginning. There's a story of acknowledgment, apology and atonement. But it didn't happen in the way that you might imagine or think. You see, like many of you, growing up I was an honor roll student with dreams of becoming a doctor. But things went dramatically wrong when my parents separated and eventually divorced.

RAZ: Shaka explains that when his parents split up, his grades started to fall. His mom was abusive, both mentally and physically. And so a few years later, he started to sell drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SENGHOR: At the age of 17, I got shot three times standing on the corner of my block in Detroit. My friend rushed me to the hospital, doctors pulled the bullets out, patched me up and sent me back to the same neighborhood I got shot. Throughout this ordeal, no one hugged me. No one told me I would be OK. No one told me that I would live in fear, that I would become paranoid. No one told me that one day, I would become the person behind the trigger. Fourteen months later, I fired the shots that caused a man's death. When I entered prison, I was angry, I was hurt. I didn't want to take responsibility. And I reacted with hostility to my confinement. I ran black-market stores. I loan sharked and I sold drugs that was illegally smuggled into the prison. I had, in fact, become what the warden of the Michigan Reformatory called the worst of the worst. And because of my activity, I landed in solitary confinement for seven and a half years out of my incarceration.

RAZ: I mean, that is so hard to imagine, living like that. But, I mean, how did you start to go from that place to where you eventually got to, to where you are now?

SENGHOR: You know, it kind of grew in stages. I think the first time was - I had read Malcolm X's autobiography. Just his ability to redeem himself and turn himself around kind of pricked my consciousness in a way to make me think, like, this is possible. And so literature kept me strong, you know, whenever I felt myself growing vulnerable to feeling like I was going to go insane, or feeling like I couldn't cope one more day in this little 6-by-9 cell. I would just turn to literature. I would turn to books and I began - at some point I began to set my cell up like a classroom. And I would study a different subject each hour as if I were going to school. And kind of like the tipping point came after I received a letter from my oldest son.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SENGHOR: And anytime I would get this letter from my son it was like a ray of light in the darkest place you can imagine. And on this particular day I opened this letter, and in capital letters he wrote, my mama told me why you was in prison - murder. He said dad, don't kill. Jesus watches what you do. Pray to him. Now I wasn't religious at that time nor am I religious now. But it was something so profound about my son's words. It was the first time in my life that I had actually thought about the fact that my son would see me as a murderer. I sat back on my bunk and I reflected on something I had read in Plato's "Republic," where Socrates stated an apology that the unexamined life isn't worth living. At that point is when the transformation began.

When he wrote that letter, you know, it made me realize that, you know, whatever happened - whether I ever got out of prison or not - that I had a responsibility as a father to give my son an example of what a man should be and what he could be. That's when I began to do the hard work, which was uncovering how did I land in prison in the first place? I just saw it in the most basic, simple way that I would do whatever was necessary to reclaim the parts of me that I knew were good.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SENGHOR: When I got the letter from my son, I began to write a journal about things I had experienced in my childhood and in prison. And what it did was it opened up my mind to the idea of atonement. Earlier in my incarceration, I had received the letter from one of the relatives of my victim. And in that letter she told me she forgave me because she realized I was a young child who had been abused and had been through some hardships and just made a series of poor decisions. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt open to forgiving myself.

RAZ: Do you ever think about just the capacity that humans have to regenerate - like for self-regeneration and for, like, almost rebirth?

SENGHOR: Yeah.

RAZ: Do you think it's, like, an inherent human capability, or do you think that some people just have that ability?

SENGHOR: Yes, I do. I think that human beings are so resilient. And I think that we have failed to acknowledge that. We tend to make transformation a freak show so to speak, as something that's abnormal or, you know, not...

RAZ: Or like superhuman.

SENGHOR: Superhuman, right.

RAZ: Yeah.

SENGHOR: And I never thought of it like that. When it comes to my own personal journey, when you are in prison, it's all about authenticity in that environment. You know, if guys think you are trying to play the good guy to get a parole or to get favor from the officers or something like that, they'll prey on that, you know. But when they know that it's genuine and it's not based on fear, but it's based on you wanting to be who you were destined to be, they respect and they celebrate that. And what I've realized is that the majority of men I encountered had the desire for something different, something better. The thing that was lacking was the courage to step out on their own, or for somebody to give them permission to step out on their own. And I think what happened with me is that I learned how to give myself permission.

RAZ: You mention that line from Socrates about the unexamined life not being worth living. It sounds weird, but, like, had you not gone through the pain that you went through in your life, you may not have had an examined life.

SENGHOR: It's true. You know, had I not gone through this experience, and I see it - you know, I see it in most people's lives - you know, the typical trajectory is you get up, you go to work, you pay the bills, you come home, take care of your family, repeat. But I found that life is so much deeper than that. We have to give ourselves permissions to expand and grow and evolve as human beings. That's our nature. And it wasn't easy. It wasn't - like I said - it didn't come without its challenges. Even when I was released from prison, there are constant challenges, constant battles. I didn't come home to a rosy neighborhood, you know, I came back home to Detroit. You know, the city I grew up in, the friends I grew up around who - some are still in the street culture and living, you know, half-butchered lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SENGHOR: Through my experience being locked up, one of the things I discovered is this - the majority of men and women who are incarcerated are redeemable. Anybody can have a transformation if we create the space for that to happen. So what I'm asking today is that you envision a world where men and women aren't held hostage to their past, where misdeeds and mistakes doesn't define you for the rest your life. I think collectively we can create that reality. And I hope you do too. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Shaka Senghor, his talk is at ted.com. After getting out of prison four years ago, he's become a mentor to young people in Detroit. He's also engaged to be married. And the son who wrote him that letter in prison? He's now 22 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW DIRECTION")

BLACK LIPS: (Singing) Going on a vision quest. Surf the mountain, ride the crest. I've been looking in a new direction. The sun is out, I'm getting scorched. The world is weird from my front porch. I've been looking in a new direction. I want to laugh and I want to cry. I want to spit, but my mouth's too dry. I want to run but I'm scared that my legs won't go. Where did they go?

RAZ: Thanks for listening to our show this week - Transformation. If you missed any of it or you want to find out more about who was on it, check out ted.npr.org. You can also find many, many more TED talks at ted.com. You can download this show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. If you like this show, or hate it, or hate us or maybe even love us, please let us know. Go to ted.npr.org, click on contact. Our Twitter handle is @tedradiohour. I'm Guy Raz and you've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading on the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW DIRECTION")

BLACK LIPS: (Singing) I want to run but I'm scared that my legs won't go. Where did they go? I've been looking in a new direction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.