Featured photo: Yusef Salaam (photo by Staci Nurse)
I’m too young to remember when Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Anton McCray and Korey Wise were arrested in 1989 for assaulting Trisha Meili, known at the time as the Central Park Jogger.
What I do remember is when Wise became last of them to be released from prison in 2002. I remember the many talks I’ve heard about it since then, the many articles that came out during the 2016 election about Trump’s vendetta against the now exonerated five and the ethics class centered around the case when I was at journalism school.
What I don’t think I ever saw was any of the exonerated five telling their own story. That is, until I read Yusef Salaam’s memoir, Better, Not Bitter. The book came out in May, and Salaam has been speaking to various audiences about his story, including in Winston-Salem this past Sunday. Dozens of people filled the seats at the Forsyth County Central Library to listen to a suit-and-tie clad Salaam talk about his story.
As the closer to Bookmark’s annual author festival, Salaam got to the library early to sign his memoir, which he says he always wanted to write.
“The memoir in many ways was fully conceived after ‘When They See Us,’” he said, referring to the Ava DuVernay series that came out in 2019 detailing the events of the Central Park Jogger case. “What was great about ‘When They See Us’ is that it told our story as a group.
“Even the stories that were told more fully, the beginnings and endings had never been told,” Salaam continued. “Before this, no one came and sat down with us and asked us who we were, where we came from, what happened.”
The last few years, Salaam has traveled all over the country speaking to groups about his experiences and mass incarceration, though he hasn’t done so as much recently due to COVID. The memoir itself has had a slow reception for the same reasons, but Salaam says that’s okay.
“My mentor Les Brown once said that the times you’re not busy, you should be thinking about and honing your craft, thinking about what you learned in the process,” he said. “With everything being slowed down, you have time to think about methods and tactics and all that other good stuff.”
Salaam lives in Georgia now, an author, poet and activist for others who have been wrongly convicted. As he says, this is a systemic issue. The Equal Justice Initiative has found that over 2,500 formerly incarcerated people have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989, and the University of Michigan found that innocent Black people are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.
As of Sept. 18, 38.2 percent of the incarcerated population in the United States is Black, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. For context, the Pew Research Center estimates the total Black population makes up about 14 percent of the United States.
Better, Not Bitter is thus not just Salaam’s story, but the story of how this came to be. He feels for Meili. He feels for Lourdes Gonzalez, the woman Meili’s attacker later assaulted and killed. He maintains that if the police had done their jobs in the first place, Gonzalez would still be alive and Salaam and the others never would have gone to prison.
“People look at a Yusef Salaam and say to themselves, these were anomalies,” Salaam said. “But what about Breonna Taylor or Rayshard Brooks? This is a systemic issue. No one in our community has ever said, ‘I want to be dead or in jail before I turn 21,’ but that’s a common thought. It’s profound now that I can be in a space where I can talk about that.”
Better, Not Bitter is Yusef Salaam’s first memoir. Readers can follow Salaam at his website, yusefspeaks.com, or @dr.yusefsalaam on Instagram and @dr_yusefsalaam on Twitter.