Transcript: To All My Sons



Into America

To All My Sons

Trymaine Lee: There’s a prevailing narrative in our society when it comes to black men. It’s a narrative that was spelled out in detail over 50 years ago, but it’s right at home in our country’s family of stereotypes about blackness, stretching from colonial times through the present day. It’s a widely held, often unexamined, belief that black men don’t stick around to parent the children that we father.

This narrative was given the stamp of government approval in 1965. That March, a report titled, “The Negro Family, the Case for National Action,” was delivered to the Johnson administration. It’s better known as the Moynihan Report, named after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who at the time was assistant secretary of labor. Moynihan was trying to convince LBJ that civil rights legislation would not produce racial equality on its own.

His report identified the fracturing of black families as one of the main drivers of inequality and laid much of the blame for that fracturing at the feet of absent black fathers. Critics on the left attacked the report for ignoring systemic factors of racism. The right latched onto it as a rationalization for inequality. And some used it to promote racist stereotypes about black families and loose morals within the black community.

Despite these attacks, black men are actually more likely to be involved in their young children’s lives than fathers of other races. According to a 2013 CDC study, black fathers were more likely to bathe, feed and read to their children under five years old daily than both white and Latino fathers, regardless of whether they lived with those children or not. But still a disproportionate number of black children don’t live with their fathers. According to 2020 census data, nearly 50 of black children lived with just their mother, far more than any other group.

Negative stereotypes about black men and fatherhood ignore our country’s racist past and present. To start with, there were centuries where enslaved black folks were treated as property and prohibited by law for marrying, robbing us of some degree of self-determination where family was concerned.

Generations later, the federal government put in rules that prevented black families from accessing public housing and other benefits if the father was still in the picture, stating quote, “no able-bodied man could be in the house if a woman received aid for dependent children.” This would forever change the dynamic of many black families in this country. And with a car school system that targets black men at higher rates than any other group, we’re more likely than other fathers to be taken from our families against our will.

Shaka Senghor: This is what I want you never to know, this feeling that all you’re doing is surviving, that your body is not your own, that you can’t get love from the men in your life.

Lee: Shaka Senghor is working to change the narrative around what it means to be a black man and father. His most recent book, “Letters to the Sons of Society,” is written as a collection of letters to his own two sons born 20 years apart. Shaka’s oldest son grew up without him present. He was born six months after Shaka entered prison for murder he committed when he was 19. His younger son was born after Shaka was released and he grew up with a father who was a successful author and constant loving presence in his life.

The book traces Shaka’s journey as a black man in America and aims to unpack the toxic and misguided messages about masculinity, mental health, love and success that boys learn from an early age.

I’m Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today, Shaka Senghor on fatherhood and what we tell our sons about what it means to be a man.

Senghor: Black boys and men must forge a new path, one in which tears are cherished, love is paramount and friendships are real and deep.

Lee: Hey, Shaka. How are you feeling, good brother?

Senghor: I’m great. I’m great. How about yourself?

Lee: I’m good, man. I’m doing even better now that we got you on, man. So, it is an honor and a pleasure to have you here with us.

Senghor: Oh, man, truly honored to be here, really looking forward to the conversation.

Lee: These days, Shaka Senghor is a successful author, speaker and tech executive. But his path to success has been a rough and winding.

Senghor: Yes. So, I grew up in a really tough household with a lot of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and my mother was really dealing with a lot of the traumatic events from her own childhood, and I think that really impacted the way that she parents it. And you know, my dad was complicit in that in the sense that he was just trying to navigate it. I mean they were both young parents, you know. One of the things now that I feel fortunate that I’m able to really kind of reflect back on who they were and what their experiences were and the healing and forgiveness that we underwent.

Lee: But as a kid growing up in Detroit, Shaka didn’t have enough context to understand the struggles his parents were facing as they tried to raise him. He says that he was an honor roll student with dreams of being a doctor. But at the age of 14, he ran away from home.

Senghor: Then I was seduced into the crack cocaine trade. And you know, within my first six months of being in that culture, my childhood friend was murdered. I was robbed at gunpoint. I was beaten nearly to death. And I still found myself immersed in that culture. And three years into it, I got shot multiple times standing on the corner of my street.

And 16 months later, I shot and tragically caused a man’s death. I was subsequently sentenced to 17 to 40 years in prison. I ended up serving a total of 19 years, and seven of those years was a solitary confinement, which was arguably, you know, the darkest period of my life. But fortunately, it was also the space where I really recognized my potential as a human being and begin to transform my life.

Lee: Inside, Shaka says that mentorship from older inmates changed the trajectory of his life.

Senghor: These men, who are serving life sentences, some of them have passed now, some of them have finally got out after four or five decades, but they saw something redeemable in me and they got me the books and they started me off with Donald Gowan’s books and Iceberg Slim, and that really opened up the doors for them to give me Malcolm X.

And once I read Malcolm X’s book, I knew that no matter what the circumstances were there was an opportunity for me to turn it around. And it wasn’t like this straight neat line. It was very crooked, very jagged. But the thing that was consistent was these incredible mentors and books.

Lee: Over the years, Shaka became an organizer within the prison, fighting for the rights of his fellow inmates. He also started writing. But the most significant thing that happened to Shaka while he was locked up occurred early on in his incarceration. Six months after he went in, his girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy named Jay. Behind bars, Shaka became a father for the first time. He credits his own father with helping him develop a relationship with his son.

Senghor: So whenever possible, my dad would bring Jay up to visit me. And you know, he would make sure that I always had access to call home. And you know, he would sit Jay down and write, you know, have him write letters and I would write letters to him. And so, in my mind, I started to create this narrative that I was really a present father even though I wasn’t physically present. And it wasn’t until I got out of prison that I realized, you know, I was so far off the mark and that I had created a narrative that just wasn’t true.

Lee: You know, so often, when we talk about and I mean we, the big we, talk about black fatherhood it’s usually framed around this idea of an absence there, right, for whatever reason. Single parent household, the mother is running things. And oftentimes fathers are engaged their children in different ways, right, whether you live in a household or not. But being incarcerated and still being a father who is trying to do their best is a whole different ball game that folks don’t talk about.

You know, when I was young, my stepfather spent many years in prison and I remember me and my mom every weekend, she cooking the food, going through the whole process of family days out there, but was so wild being inside the visiting room. It was like that room with the kids in it and we’re wrestling and playing around the TV, and it’s like, now, I look at it’s like there were a lot of us there.

Senghor: Yeah.

Lee: There were a lot of parents —

Senghor: Yeah.

Lee: — who were incarcerated and a lot of families who were serving time with y’all. And I wonder when you realize, like wait a second, my son was, I thought I was present but my son, Jay, was experiencing a whole different universe of this relationship.

Senghor: Yeah, absolutely. You know, when I was inside, I remember the first visit that, you know, my dad brought Jay up. And you know, initially, like he wouldn’t let me hold him. And I remember having to hold it together of the emotional reaction to that because up to that point I had, you know, created this idea that, you know, I’m a father, you know, as soon as you see me, he’s going to be excited without really thinking that I was a foreign, just another big person to him at the time.

And by the end of that visit, we started to get a bond and it was like beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time because I knew I couldn’t leave with him. And I remember them walking out and him lifting up his little arms like, dad, come with me, and like how heartbreaking that was.

And so, I wasn’t even able to unpack those emotions fully because as soon as, you know, he walked out and I walked the other way I had to go into a strip search. So, it was like holding my emotions together while I’m going through this degrading process and knowing that this was going to be the reality for, you know, the next nearly two decades.

Lee: And what was the relationship with Jay like once you finally got out?

Senghor: Yeah. When I got out, you know, I think I was overly optimistic. And you know, I thought that Jay and I would connect, we would bond, you know, we were right off into the sunset father and son, and it was a lot more complex than that. You know, Jay was shaping his life in a way that worked for him. And I really came home more as a mentor than a dad.

And the reason I say that is, you know, by the time I left prison I was 38 years old. And so, I started to see all of the young guys coming in who looked like me. I was a 19-year- old kid when I entered prison. And so, my role at that point was that of a mentor, that of a guy, that of, you know, someone who offers wisdom and instruction to young men, you know, coming through the system and doing everything I could to prevent them from serving more time than was necessary.

And so, when I came home, you know, I kind of came home with that mind set up, let me whip him into shape, you know, help him, you know, develop an entrepreneurial spirit. We’ll work together and we’ll create something. And he hadn’t signed up for that. And I realized, you know, which I wrote about in the book that I was attempting to take him on one more journey that, you know, I hadn’t asked his permission for. And so, that created some tension, some conflict. And you know, it was really difficult early on, and it took us a while to get to a space where we’re able to communicate without that tension being there.

Lee: When we come back, Shaka experiences a different kind of fatherhood. Stick with us.

In 2010, after serving 19 years behind bars, Shaka Senghor was finally released.

Senghor: And I kind of knew that it was going to be difficult transition to society, that it was going to be difficult to find employment. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be, you know, I couldn’t find traditional employment. You know, it was hard to get apartments when we needed to move. And you know, I dealt with all those kind of obstacles that stand in the way of people re-entering society.

But for me, you know, I was very purpose driven. I knew there were a couple of things I wanted to do. One, I really wanted to mentor young men and women in my community. You know, I really wanted to reach those kids who were like me, who were smart, who had all the potential in the world, but we’re growing up in you know abusive households, in, you know, high gun violence environments, and things of that nature. And I knew I wanted to really pour into those kids.

And so, I came home with that mission in mind. And you know, from that work as a writer as well as a mentor, you know, I started getting these opportunities to speak to schools. And from there, I realized that I had a responsibility to tell the true story of the men and women who were still incarcerated. So, that’s how my work kind of began in the space of criminal justice.

Lee: A few years after his release from prison, Shaka became a father for the second time with the birth of his son, Sekou. And since releasing “Writing my Wrongs” in 2016, Shaka has found success as an author. In essence, he’s had two completely different experiences of fatherhood.

Senghor: So, you know, when I think about the two experiences I have as a dad, I have to think about my father. You know, for the 19 years of my incarceration, my dad was my most consistent champion, consistent person that I wrote to and who wrote to me, and he’s actually the inspiration for the way that I wrote the book.

Lee: Shaka’s most recent book is titled, “Letters to the Sons of Society.” It’s structured as a series of letters written to his two sons.

Senghor: My dad used to write these beautiful letters while I was incarcerated, and he did everything in his power to keep me connected to my oldest son, Jay, who was born six months after I was arrested. And we had to start fresh, and it was a very difficult process, because when I came home, Jay was a young man navigating life on his own.

And shortly after that, Sekou’s mom, Ebony, was pregnant with him. And I found myself in this space of like, wow, I’m really navigating what it means to be a father and to be a present dad in all the ways possible. You know, I’m a nurturer. You know, I was fully present through every aspect of the birth process. And when her and I decided that our personal relationship was no longer working, we really came up with a plan to have the best possible co-parenting relationship, you know, under the circumstances.

And you know, it’s something that I’m really proud of is that we both are intentional about centering our parenting relationship and love. And so, the difference is this day-to-day life of being really present, being able to be physically affectionate with my son, to be emotionally available to my younger son, are things that, you know, at times is very complex because I’m always thinking about the things that Jay missed out on.

But I’m also able to balance that out with, you know, the fact that, you know, I’ll be 50 in June, and when Jay was born, you know, I was 19 years old. So, you know, I’m sure the experience would have been different in another kind of way, but I really feel fortunate to be able to just be fully present as a dad with Sekou.

And even now with Jay, you know, he is 30 years old but, you know, he’s still my son, and you know, the way that we communicate now is more aligned with being, you know, two adult men and me recognizing that, you know, my greatest responsibility right now to him is to ensure that he always has full access to any questions he has and my full support whenever he needs it. So, that’s what it looks like in in today’s world.

Lee: You know, those are two juxtaposing worlds, like the relationship you have with Jay from all that you have been through, taking him on his journey he didn’t ask to be on. And then you have a Sekou, a young man who is emerging into this world with his father present and all that love and bonding and everything there, how did you navigate those feelings in between?

I don’t want to put words in your mouth like a guilt or whatever it is, but I can imagine a range of feelings, like I got one son here that I’m trying my best with, but we got the scars from the nature of our relationship. And then I have this beautiful situation here, like how have you navigated the wide range of emotions that one might feel in between those two spaces?

Lee: It’s extremely difficult, you know. When I think about the early part of that experience, you know, I remember when Sekou was first born and I was sitting in the hospital and I was holding him, and I was saying to myself, man, like I missed that experience with Jay. And over the years like me and Sekou have such an incredible bond.

And I know a lot of that bond is rooted in just presence, my mere presence in his life, the comfort that children find when a dad is there, you know, the ability to, you know, do affirmations with him before a bed, to read stories to him, to let him crawl up in my lap and go to sleep, which he still does now. He’s 10 years old, and you know, he still loves that ability to just come in chill with dad.

And you know, I do have these moments where I’m like, man, you know, I wish I could have given Jay that. But the way that I try to live my life is I try to live my life present in the moments that I’m in. I know I can’t undo the past and the past is what it is, you know. Tomorrow hasn’t arrived. We can hope for what we want that to look like, but we do have the presents. you know.

What I found with Jay is that, you know, love looks different between us, you know. And I won’t be tussling his hair, but I can sit present with him on a phone call or when we’re together and we can just vibe and just be. And sometimes I think as parents we over complicate things when simply just being present is actually enough.

Lee: You know, one of your appeal, Shaka, is that not only are you are you talented as a writer and engaging with these ideas, but it’s like your openness and honesty, right, your authenticity and your experience. But I wonder how Jay experiences that because you not only have righted some of your wrongs, right, and it seems like you’ve done some healing through your process of like purging and writing and explaining your story, but he’s also part of that story and he’s certainly still holding on to a lot of that baggage. How is he engaged with your work or how is he experiencing your success in telling your story?

Senghor: Yeah. Jay is kind of like in his own world, you know. He has super laid back energy, you know. He’s pretty much unbothered by many things. And with this particular book, you know, I talked to him, I was like, you know, I’m writing this book, and you know, it’s, you know, some letters to you and your brother, and I hope someday that you, you know, feel inspired to read it because it really will help you understand, you know, the things that shaped me and shaped the way that I show up in the world now, the way I show up as a dad, my thoughts when I wasn’t present as a dad.

And up to this point he’s chosen not to read, and he’s like, dad, I’m fine, like that’s your world. He’s like I’m not interested in it. I mean I’ve invited him to be on in conversations and on podcasts and all type of stuff, and Jay is like, that’s all you, dad, like I’m not interested in that world. And that’s perfectly fine, you know.

I think for me, you know, as a dad, first and foremost, I’m always going to be honorable into sharing the stories of my family and my loved ones. I’m always going to be truthful, but you know, I think my approach is always to share the truth with care, with thoughtfulness, with kindness, and you know, real transparency, and I learned that from my dad.

Lee: You know, one thing that is kind of a recurring theme on this show and I always like to engage with brothers about our vulnerability and openness and honesty with each other because, obviously, we can project a certain kind of masculinity and inside we’re hurting, we’re dealing with all these relationship things and emotional things and the trauma of everything. And I wonder through your journey and being intentional and unpacking all of this stuff and engaging with your relationships with your sons and your father, what you’ve learned, like any best practices that you’ve learned about how brothers regardless of our relationship, how we can be closer to help each other and understand each other?

Senghor: Absolutely. That’s a great question. You know, one of the things that I learned is that the thing that keeps men, you know, kind of separated and feeling like we have to kind of do everything on our own, it’s just these false narratives that’s been created about what toughness is, what resiliency looks like, and what masculinity is. And what I’ve been challenging men on is like find your joy, you know, what really makes you happy.

I can’t tell you how many men I see with the biggest smile when I’m at the school picking up my son and their children first walks out. And I’m like the world doesn’t know that story. They don’t see that story. And I think the more we started to tell the old story, the more we started to talk about, you know, our mental health challenges, our emotional challenges, our relationship challenges, you know, the more people will see we’re as complex as any other human and we want and we crave that love and connectivity.

And you know, for me, I’m so fortunate to have a brotherhood of men who we show up fully, authentically. You know, we laugh together. We’ve cried together. We celebrate joy together. Men crave all the things that people think we’re incapable of. And so, for me, you know, when I hear people are like, you know, we need to change the narrative. I don’t think that’s true. I think we just need to expand the narrative and really be more inclusive of all of who we are and not these limited kind of subsections of living that people think is only relevant to being a man.

Lee: Speaking of that idea of joy, talk about tapping into this joy, and 10 years old is a great age, right? And I wonder when you think of your little boy, Sekou, and all of the possibilities how much joy that fills you with, but also how does he see you? Does he see you just like that’s my dad, that’s pop, or is he like that’s dad, the award-winning author, like how does he see you in this moment?

Senghor: I think Sekou sees me as both. He’s so unbothered by, you know, all the external things that’s happening, you know. And man, our relationship is so rich. It’s so layered. It’s so much joy. I think we find the greatest joy in just laughing and joking together and playing around. And he’s super curious. We both love music. He loves to read. This is the first, you know, book of mine that he’s actually read, and he’s really fired up, like he’s a fan of mine like right now and it feels great. This is like the first time like he don’t care about all the other stuff, like he’s a fan of the writing because he loves stories.

But what I really hope for dads is that they give themselves more permission to be silly, to dance, to be joyful, to really be president, and know that it’s not just means everything to their children, it feels good in in your body, you know, it feels good to laugh and to not take life so serious, and you know, to think about provision differently, to think about protection different.

Like when I think about my responsibility or provision, yes, it’s all those basic things, make sure he can eat and he has clothes, but it’s also making sure he has access to joy, to have access to all of his emotions, to be able to say, dad, I’m sad today and I need a minute. And you know, as a, you know, protector is to protect him from the things that troubled me from my past and from my identity as a man and to know like, you know, hey, son, you don’t have to shoot that hoop, you know, you want to go do something, you want to go cold, like that’s perfectly fine as well, you know, to protect him from you know any failed dream that I have, you know, and not project that on him.

So, I really hope more dads see the value of being emotionally vulnerable and the gift that it is not only to their children but to themselves and to their partners, and you know, their co-parents or present parents. Like to me, if I accomplish that as a writer, my job is done.

Lee: Shaka Senghor, man, it’s your first time on the show, but you are a friend of the show. We know there will be more from you. So, you are welcome back anytime, brother. Thank you so much for your time and your writing, man. It’s a real gift, man. Thank you very much.

Senghor: Thank you so much for having me, man. I’m truly honored to be here.

Lee: Before he left our interview, we had Shaka read a passage from “Letters to the Sons of Society.” It’s a letter he wrote to both his sons.

Senghor: Dear Jay and Sekou. This is what I want you never to know, this feeling that all you’re doing is surviving, that your body is not your own, that you can’t get love from the men in your life. I want you to flower, to expand, to chase every last drop of what the world has to offer. Yes, you will see overreactions, brutality, and the look on the face of white culture that may one day want to kill you because it’s afraid of the imaginary ghost of who you can be. But you will also have my love, Sekou, and the love of other men around you and we will honor you, raise you up, and let you be fully human. This is the best we can do, and we will do our best every single day word-by-word in this book, which I wrote for you and for all the sons of society.

And all these letters I have tried to instill in you both a sense of wonder about the world, a hunger for love not for violence, and permission to go and seek out the very best of our planet. We spin along upon it for such a brief time and I don’t want you ever to feel the burdens I felt, never know the fear I felt, the sense of dislocation. Black boys and men must forge a new path, one in which tears are cherished, love is paramount and friendships are real and deep. Those in our community who struggle with addiction or abuse or neglect must be covered with healing hands, hands that you willingly reach out to all in any.

I lost 20 years to a system that I thought was irredeemable. But somehow through literature and letters and words, I was able to find a way out of the darkness into the light of this past decade. I don’t claim that it’s been easy nor that every day is a dream. But my boys, my boys, when I think of your faces, hear your voices and see your strong and beautiful bodies walk across this earth, I am reminded of the elemental perfection of nature, the magnitude of my good fortune and the mere chance one in billions that I survived that we came together for this fleeting span, isn’t that enough? Let us make it enough every second that we breathe this shared and magical air, Dad.

Lee: Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the handle @intoamericapod, and you can tweet me using my full name @trymainlee or write to us at [email protected] That was [email protected] and the letters

Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I’m Trymaine Lee. We’ll see you next Thursday.

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