What was it like getting the ultimate cosign from Oprah Winfrey?
Shaka: “It’s interesting because I believe we really trap ourselves based on what we want. And all I could think about was how I really wanted to be a doctor while I was in prison. When you think negatively, you get negative outcomes, so I began to shift my thinking, and one of the things I started to think was, ‘One day I want to be interviewed by Oprah because she has such an appreciation form literature.’
Having her blessing is a dream come true on so many levels. Being able to converse with her was one of the most surreal moments of my life and one of the most authentic moments of my life. She’s such a genuine soul. She really listens in a way that allows you to be fully human.”
In the New York Times article about you and Austin Reed, you said you felt like you could travel “outside of prison and go wherever you desired.” How did writing getting you out of such a dark place?
Shaka: “Well, at first I was writing fiction. I called it ‘Conscious Street lit’. Unfortunately I couldn’t get it published because I was in solitary confinement. But writing those stories just allowed me to get into the characters’ minds, hearts and go places where they went. So being able to write, I was able to take myself on these magical trips in this visual world that had a different moral compass to it.”
Which one of your six books was the most impactful for you personally?
Shaka: “I would say my first book, solely because it was the first thing I ever completed and I never completed anything so significant in my life. To finish something I started and do it in such a personal space like that, impacted me tremendously because it gave me a dream. Once I finished that book, it was like I could say ‘Wow I can actually do something meaningful with my life. I can add values to the world. I can create.’
How did the Atonement Project come to be? Where do you see it going in the next 5 years?
Shaka: “The vision for it was to use art to make difficult conversations a lot easier. I thought using art was really a great way to have this conversation [of the criminal justice system] in a non-threatening way. Anyone can experience art in some sort of fashion, so in the Atonement Project, we use three different art forms: visual art, creative writing, and theater to tell the stories of atonement. Unfortunately, when it comes to doing any project or program, money is always the issue. It’s kind of in limbo right now, but it’s definitely something I plan to revisit.”
As someone who has experienced the negative parts of the justice system himself, what do you hope the next president will do to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and to end these issues?
Shaka: “I would hope the next president actually has the courage to speak honestly about what’s happening in the country. In the political arena, often times people are really afraid to speak the truth. They can’t look at the reality of Eric Garner getting choked to death, Mike Brown being shot and it’s happening under your watch as Commander and Chief. So I would hope the next president will speak to these issues. It just takes one person to open that flood gate.”
To learn more about Shaka Senghor, visit his website here.