Athens features in Ohio University alum’s new award-winning memoir

Prince Shakur’s new memoir traces his development from family roots in 1960s Jamaica, to familial trauma and loss, explorations of identity, political radicalization and global travels.

A recent award-winning memoir explores familial trauma and loss, identity, and political radicalization as experienced by an Ohio University alum. 

Prince Shakur’s debut “When They Tell You to Be Good” was published by Tin House  in October 2022. The book is the winner of the Hurston/Wright Crossover Award for previously unpublished Black authors in literary nonfiction. The memoir traces Shakur’s development from family roots in 1960s Jamaica to his political awakening in Athens and subsequent world travels.

“I’ve always wanted to see more narratives about people navigating life who have gone through similar things to me — whether it’s having parents who have been incarcerated, or understanding what it’s like to be the child of immigrants, or dealing with being one of the first people in your family to go to college,” Shakur said in an interview. 


In taking up these themes, Shakur “wanted to be as honest as possible.” 

“I’d rather confront the weirdness of the world and the heavy stuff about the world in order to also be honest about what inspires me about the world or my experiences,” he said. “Part of that was figuring out how to be honest about things that I feel like I don’t necessarily see Black people or queer people having the space to be as honest about in creative nonfiction.”

To do this, Shakur takes not only a personal approach, but also what he described as a “social and political approach.” 

Over the course of the memoir, he takes part in OU student activism and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and visits Standing Rock and May Day protests in Paris, France. 

The memoir also explores different forms of masculinity, and specifically Jamaican masculinities, that have shaped Shakur.

“I’ve had to unlearn a lot of things about patriarchy or masculinity — I’m always actively unlearning, so I really wanted this book to be a representation of that process,” he said. “As a queer, Black person, I’m always negotiating how I show up in spaces: Where I feel safe, why I feel safe.”

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Shakur’s editor at Tin House was Hanif Abdurraqib, an award-winning poet and essayist from Columbus. At Abdurraqib’s urging, Shakur organized the book nonchronologically, which he said “gives me a deeper respect for my younger self” by connecting the challenges and ideas he has dealt with in different periods of his life. 

“I think some core part of me is still there,” he said.

Shakur found a “second home” in Athens, he said.

“When I started OU, I was a square,” he said. “I didn’t do much public speaking. I was a lot more shy. Getting into the DIY punk scene, learning about politics and organizing, I found friends, but I also found family. I found people that helped me invest in my queerness and my Blackness, and those are things I hope people can see in the memoir. Lessons about valuing myself that I learned in Athens definitely helped me as an adult.”

The memoir opens in Athens in 2014, Shakur’s senior year at OU. That year, he served as LGBTQIA Affairs Commissioner on Ohio University’s Student Senate. Shakur also led Black student organizations, organized and participated in various student protests and wrote a column for The Post.

“That point in my life is where I’m beginning to confront mortality as an adult,” Shakur said. “I’m organizing around Black Lives Matter. I’m learning about the Palestinian struggle for freedom. I’m learning about what happened in Ferguson. And my best friend’s mother passes away. And since a lot of this book is about grief and mortality and negotiating those things as a young person, through different places and political movements, it makes sense that I start where this question is developing. I view that chapter as a big transition.”

That chapter also discusses Shakur’s participation in the OU Student Union, a former campus activist group which led the student senate at the time of the ‘Blood Bucket Challenge.’ The video, posted by the then-student senate president in support of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, sparked local and international controversy

As the book moves through different time periods, it also moves across the country and the world. Shakur said this “shows the scale of anti-Blackness, and how queerness can lead you to the strange parts of the world, but it also can lead you to kind of a deeper truth.”

Local residents feature in the memoir as well. One of them is Eli Hiller, who attended OU with Shakur and is originally from Athens. Hiller is one of the people who helps “intervene in moments where I’m kind of in distress or second guessing my value,” Shakur said.

“I’m really grateful to have these intimate experiences we’ve shared together from a fresh perspective,” Hiller said. “I had my own ideas of certain things we went through, but to see it from his perspective — and there’s such poetic grandeur in the way he can build a scene — it brought me to tears numerous times throughout his memoir.”

Millfield-based fiction writer Madeline ffitch, an OU alum and author of the locally based novel “Stay and Fight,” also met Shakur during his time at OU. Her praise of “When They Tell You to Be Good” appears on the book’s jacket.

Although ffitch and Shakur never shared a classroom, ffitch said both are “products of that workshop system” and found each other as trusted readers. They met, however, through activism and first connected through a shared identification with “anti-authoritarian organizing, which is non-ideological, very practical and on the ground, direct action-oriented,” ffitch said.

“I think that tradition of organizing tends to be very imaginative and fluid in the same way that art is — so we’re political and we’re organizers and our writing often reflects that, but our writing is also non-doctrinaire,” ffitch said.

Shakur said writing has given him a new sense of power.

“This book is a lot about my family and my life, and I feel like with a lot of the things that I’m talking about, that have a lot of stigma, I’ve given myself a sense of power around them,” he said. “It’s shown me even more than I already knew that writing can help you be the kind of person that you want to be.”

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