In 'Better, Not Bitter,' One Of The Central Park Five Tells His Own Story
Yusef Salaam was only 15 years old in 1989 when he and four other children, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, were falsely accused of the brutal rape of a Central Park jogger.
Salaam was incarcerated for seven years before being released and, even then, he returned to society as a parolee, not as someone deemed innocent. The Central Park Five did not become the Exonerated Five until their convictions were overturned in 2002, after Korey Wise encountered the actual rapist in prison and persuaded him to come forward.
Despite this horrific miscarriage of justice, Salaam's compelling memoir, Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice, is one of astounding warmth.
While Better, Not Bitter addresses the case and his time in prison, the story Salaam most wants to tell is "about the foundation laid by both [his] family and [his] faith, which ensured that [he] would not only survive this awful injustice but thrive in the midst of it." The cornerstone of that foundation is his "fierce mother who is incredibly loving and extremely protective of her children," he writes. The chapter he dedicates to her shows that she had been intent on "protect[ing] her family and her community" long before he was locked up. Her support is unending, and it's hard not to cheer at her ingenuity when she creates an organization that delivers periodic home-cooked meals to the young men in juvenile facilities.
His tragic circumstances notwithstanding, Salaam frequently writes of the many things he had to be grateful for, not the least of which was having "village of support surrounding [him] and infusing in [him] a confidence that would greatly serve [him] later." In addition to his mother, this village includes a sister who is his best friend and a brother who tries to physically restrain him when he makes the fateful decision to go to the police station and clear up the confusion about his involvement. It includes an aunt, uncle, and cousins who lived in the same building while he was growing up. It includes his adored brother from the Big Brothers program, whose job as a district attorney meant he could offer insight to the family during Salaam's arrest. The letters his grandmother mailed during his incarceration even served a kind of double duty. They were always addressed to "Master Yusef Salaam" to, he suspects, remind him who he was and because she "wanted the correctional officers to know who they were holding.... that there were people outside of the facility who loved and cherished" him.
Salaam's other unwavering source of support was his faith. From his earliest days of imprisonment, he sees indications of divine intervention. One corrections officer, after expressing his belief that Salaam doesn't belong there, asks him a question that leads Salaam on a journey to learn more about his faith, which ultimately results in his becoming an imam. Another corrections officer also perceives his innocence and leaves gifts of Tropicana orange juice and Entenmann's cookies on his bed to "make [his] time as easy and as sweet as possible." When he is moved into an adult facility, Muslim members of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army tell him "You are a political prisoner. You are safe." Such incidents lead Salaam to conclude these experiences are meant to help him grow into the person he is supposed to become.
At no point does he suggest his experience was easy, though. Soon after learning to play basketball and developing some skill in the sport, envious players target him, leading him to stop playing the fourth time his shoulder is pulled out of its socket. He was part of a group that had been turned into "poster children for Black deviance." A man who would later become the 45th president has his first foray into politics when he responds to the case with a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. Pat Buchanan's political commentary at the time suggested, "If ... the eldest of that wolf pack were tried, convicted and hanged in Central Park by June 1; and the 13- and 14-year-olds were stripped, horse-whipped, and sent to prison, the park might soon be safe again for women." Even today, nearly two decades after his exoneration, Salaam finds himself telling his story in the third person as a way to detach from the pain.
Throughout, however, Salaam focuses on controlling the one thing in his power — his thoughts. That he would later go on to become a motivational speaker seems a natural outcome for someone who spent years mentally escaping his physical confinement and planning for a better future, believing that "just like a modern-day vision board, your mind becomes a place of liberation." Similar inspiration and encouragement are peppered throughout the memoir. He advises readers "to trust the journey" when they're in the midst of hardship and "to act as if your prayers have been answered." He encourages people to meditate and to find a way to document their desires.
Salaam is also clear in his belief that we must attend to the broader systemic story, as well. He posits that "linking the individual narrative with the collective one paints a clearer picture of what is actually happening to Black and Brown people in this country." He doesn't ignore the role of white supremacy in shaping the Black and Brown experience and makes it clear that "you can't talk about crime without talking about poverty, health disparities, and redlining."
This book should be read by anyone who wants to hear the story of the Exonerated Five directly from one of its members. Just as Ava Duvernay's renowned series about their story, When They See Us, serves as a powerful counter to the more than 400 articles written vilifying the teens in 1989, so does this book continue to illuminate just how wrong the American justice system can go. Salaam notes that the media "screamed about our guilt and whispered about our innocence." The better we know this story and stories like it, the better able we'll be to prevent them from recurring.
Ericka Taylor is the popular education manager for Take on Wall Street and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, and Willow Springs.
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