By Audra Heinrichs

In taking back his life after a wrongful incarceration, the writer, speaker, and activist won’t claim any bitterness. From Mission’s BIPOC issue.

Dr. Yusef Salaam is a master in the art of the pregnant pause. He waits to answer questions until he’s chosen the exact words, the most demonstrative allegory, the most fitting quote from a Black freedom fighter who came before him. There are many moments in the time we spend together wherein these pauses allow me to study the background on screen, a polychromatic shrine to social justice figures of the past and present—and a surefire 10/10 on Room Rater. 

One gets the sense he was always going to be this thoughtful, but years of having his words robbed and replaced by the United States judicial system, mass media, and the prison industrial complex has its way of further engendering a certain deliberation. Salaam is careful, but he’s anything but contained. 

In a voice as gentle and honeyed as an ASMR influencer, Salaam joins Mission via Zoom and generously discusses all that led to the writing of his recently published memoir, Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice, wherein he tells his own story in his own words for the very first time.

In 1989, Salaam and four Black teenage boys—Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—were unjustly implicated in the rape and brutalization of a white female jogger in New York City’s Central Park. After prolonged periods of police interrogation, and without sound evidentiary support, the five boys were convicted, in two separate trials, of charges stemming from the attack. Salaam, then just 15 years old, was tried as a juvenile and sentenced to 5 to 10 years. He would serve for six years and eight months until 2002, when he was exonerated following a confession from a serial rapist and murderer. The case of the Central Park Five, as they’d been dubbed, would make history as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the United States.

There have been many adaptations of this story in the past two decades, but Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, a drama series that premiered on Netflix in 2019, is remembered for having the most cultural resonance. More than 23 million accounts streamed the show in its release year alone. It was the first time since 2002 that the Exonerated Five, as the men are now known, would see their story told in its totality, for all of its unflinching truth, on an international stage. Though apprehensive that the fresh publicity would give way to the media machine clamoring for another pound of flesh as it had years earlier, Salaam felt ready. 

“It was almost as if we were prepared to be humble enough to be in front of people and not feel the overwhelming sense of pride, or of so-called celebrity,” he explains, the assemblage of bracelets and rings on his wrists and fingers sounding as he wrings his hands. “We were once known as infamous people, now we’re famous and being given our flowers in life, and it’s a great feeling to be able to receive that but also to know we’re being recognized because we stood up for ourselves. We survived.”

Now a prison reform advocate, writer, and motivational speaker, Salaam sees survival as many things—his family, the lives he’s able to touch in his work, and unfettered creativity chief among them. In prison, the practice of making vision boards to manifest an image of what he’d make of his life upon release was of particular importance, so much so that he recommends it to those who are currently incarcerated. But it’s Salaam’s writing that is now offered a certain agency of the past, present, and future. 

In 2020, Salaam, along with award-winning, best-selling author Ibi Zoboi, released Punching the Air, a YA novel about a 16-year-old boy named Amal—the Arabic word for hope—who is wrongfully incarcerated for throwing a punch at a white peer. The book has become a New York Times and USA Today best seller and was listed as one of Time magazine’s best books of the year. 

Punching the Air also paved the path for Salaam’s new memoir, Better, Not Bitter, which he describes as a “deep dive” and deconstruction of some of the most difficult years of his life—painful memories that went unmined for decades. 

“You sweep it under that rug so that you can move forward and deal with life as you know it now,” he says. “Writing [the book] was a very intense process, but it was also very necessary, because for many years I had thrown the awful experience of being run over by the spike wheels of justice behind my back. I had to deal with it because I needed to tell my story, and more important, how we as a people can be made better by the experiences we go through.” 

Signs of Salaam’s inherent prowess with the pen were present even at his sentencing hearing, wherein he chose to recite a poem he’d written, “I Stand Accused,” just before he learned he’d spend 5 to 10 years in prison. The roughly three-minute poem skewered the media, friends who abandoned him, and most of all, the legal systems that made a series of decisions to put an innocent teenage boy behind bars. 

“I used to think the people and cops were cool, but who protects us from you?” Salaam asked the courtroom. 

Even now, he remembers the judge’s reply as he took his seat: “How dare you, a child, scold me like that!”

“I think about my younger self writing those words, standing up in the courtroom, and presenting that as my last statement—because that’s how I felt, like I would never be able to say anything else again in life. At that moment, I understood that I was terribly afraid, but courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the understanding that you have to stand up anyway,” Salaam says.

Over the past decade, as more Americans have become increasingly conscious of systemic racism, the prison industrial complex, and a whole host of fissures in the foundation of the so-called justice system in the country, the chorus of cries to defund the police has grown louder in major cities across the U.S., and those who’d previously thought abolitionism impossible are beginning to reimagine what their own backyards might look like with less support for federal prisons and more toward comprehensive community care. But Salaam, along with many Black Americans, didn’t need to witness another George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Tony McDade to know that radical reform—a holistic dismantling—has been a matter of life and death for a very long time. 

This April, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Salaam likened the prison industrial complex to a modern-day cotton field. When asked to clarify if this means he identifies as an abolitionist, his answer is resolute. 

“Abolition is a necessity,” he begins. “When we look at slavery—even in its abolition—we find there has always been an effort to continue slavery by another name: vagrancy laws, redlining, etc. When we look at America in terms of its criminal justice system, we realize that the people who lack the capital are often the ones who are imprisoned, and then we realize how this story is connected historically with where we are right now.”

Salaam then remembers an exchange from 10 years ago. He was in California for a speaking engagement when he met a young woman who told him she wanted to become a police officer and asked for advice on how to do that job, knowing the reality of policing. 

“I wanted to tell her to run and not go into that profession, but I was made to realize that this was a very rare and special occasion that I can influence the future of the ideology she’s going into,” Salaam says. “We often hear about the oppression that goes on in our communities because it gets the bigger spotlight, but the individuals who killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others had an opportunity to choose. Unfortunately, instead of choosing to give life, they took it. They killed and hurt and maimed. That’s where we are. But we can come out of it.” 

And this is where Salaam’s Better, Not Bitter surpasses vague shibboleth status and becomes something of a thesis statement. Righteous rage and legitimized despair from years of villainization and dehumanization have allowed Salaam to arrive at every experience and meet it as though it’s an opportunity to change a mind, open a heart, or offer forgiveness—even to those many wouldn’t spend a moment on. Not because it’s without herculean effort, but because it allows him another chance to reclaim a power that only comes with beginning anew.

“As my friend Les Brown says, you always have to try to land on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up. And as the great philosopher Cardi B says, ‘Knock me down nine times but I get up ten,’ ” laughs Salaam. “That’s the truth. That’s the truth of life.”

@dr.yusefsalaam on Instagram

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