The set of blazing emotions provoked by Yusef Salaam’s memoir, “Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice,” includes strong doses of disgust, shame, anger — and inspiration. In 1989, five teenagers, all Black or Hispanic, were convicted in the notorious case of a young White female jogger who had been raped, beaten, tortured, and left for dead in Central Park. Salaam was one of those five teenagers.
His life until that fateful April day had been relatively carefree and productive. His mother, who had converted to Islam shortly after her marriage, was an extraordinary person, a woman of admirable character who demonstrated her huge love for her three children in every imaginable way. She was protective, affectionate, very smart, strong-willed, hard-working and conscientious. And she carefully taught her children all the rules and behaviors they would need to protect themselves — to survive — on the menacing Harlem streets; to protect themselves against the roaming gangs and the police. Yusef absorbed all that guidance and inherited much of his mother’s strength, self-discipline, intelligence, belief in the power of his God, Allah, and in his own determination to overcome every conceivable obstacle no matter how cruel. And all those positive traits would be desperately needed and tested in the months and years to come.
The case against the Central Park Five was woefully weak from the start. The boys were forced into confessions, but each confession was blatantly contradicted by the others, a sure sign that they were made up out of whole cloth, primarily to avoid beatings and torture at the hands of the police. But due to the fear that had infected New York City in the ’80s, the law enforcement system, the justice system, needed culprits. So the guilty verdicts in the trials were foregone conclusions.And instantly, the entire country willingly and often gleefully accepted those verdicts. The kids were labelled as beasts, monsters, wild animals. In full-page newspaper ads, one Donald Trump demanded their executions. All were sentenced to years-long prison terms.The American justice system had been tested and had failed miserably. The trials had been a sham. They were indicative of everything that proved that the American justice system is, in fact, the American injustice system. It was then and remains today a sad example of the cruel systemic racism that plagues this country just as it has since its inception. It’s a system whose main goal is to maintain the over-arching beliefs and behaviors of white supremacists, the behaviors they need in order to hold onto their power: Black people and all people of color must accept the fact that they are invisible; that they always have been and always will be inferior; that they are not worthy of “our” justice; that prison is their near-inevitable destiny; that prisons are and should be the cotton fields of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and that white supremacy reflects the natural and correct order of things.
Salaam, we learn from his memoir, managed to survive the conditions of his imprisonment only through a combination of several fortunate factors: his incredible combination of fortitude and stubborn sense of self-worth; his innate intelligence; and his unusual and outstanding leadership abilities — he became an imam in both the juvenile and adult prisons to which he was assigned, a leader and teacher of the Muslim inmates who, in turn, fiercely protected him from the physical dangers that all prisoners fear and face every minute of every day.
In 1997, he emerged from his imprisonment severely wounded spiritually and emotionally; but with the love of his family and the good people who surrounded him, he survived and eventually prospered. In 2002, the man who had actually committed the crime confessed. In 2012, Ken Burns created a jarring documentary series about the entire tragic event. Later, Ava DuVernay wrote and produced a powerful dramatization of the plight of the Central Park Five, a series entitled “When They See Us.” And today Yusef Salaam is an internationally recognized inspirational speaker.New York City eventually awarded a 41 million dollar settlement to the Exonerated Five. And perhaps the greatest miracle of all is the fact that Yusef Salaam himself can sincerely proclaim — to all of us — that he is Better, Not Bitter.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.
Review by Jack Kramer