Exonerated Five’s Yusef Salaam On Surviving Prison, Black Lives Matter, And The Need For Real History
Words by Marcus Barnes
What does systemic oppression actually feel like? What is the lived experience of a system designed to fail Black citizens? These questions lie at the core of understanding and awareness of racism in its insidious, baked in, ubiquitous presence.
It engulfs the lives of millions of Black people every single day. The term white supremacy feels loaded to anyone with white skin because of the images it conjures up; Klan marches, burning crosses and lynchings. In its everyday form though, white supremacy is much more prevalent and destructive.
The system of white supremacy is built on the notion that whiteness is the norm, the benchmark, the baseline, the blueprint for humanity, and anything else is abnormal, different, foreign, ‘other’. The result is people of colour being criminalised, exoticised, demeaned, oppressed and dehumanised. Of course, people of colour are celebrated and admired, too, as much as the system allows.
On one of the last sunny Sundays of the year I spent a few hours in a local park, sat on the grass deeply engrossed in Punching The Air, a book by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, which was released last month.
Punching The Air is based on Yusef’s own experience as a teenager. When he was 15 he was sent to jail with four other Black teenagers as part of what became known as the Central Park Five. They were accused of brutally raping a woman, arrested and put through lengthy police interrogations with no legal counsel.
Check out Salaam and Zoboi talking about their book in the video below:
It was a prime example of racial profiling, the product of a system set up to keep Black people oppressed. The coercive nature of their confessions was later highly criticised and, after their convictions were overturned in 2002, the five men successfully sued the City of New York in 2003 for millions of dollars.
Yusef now travels the world as a motivational speaker, campaigning for prison reform and the restoration of humanity for those who have been incarcerated. I spoke to Yusef about the book and his own experiences, covering legacy, systemic revolution and much more. ‘When I think about legacy, I think about something that has been denied us,’ Yusef says.
We’re chatting via Skype, Yusef in Atlanta and me in my London office. There’s 3,500 miles between us, though our life experiences, and those of our family members and friends, are not that dissimilar.
‘Part of what’s important is what’s been hidden and taken from us,’ he says. ‘In America they talk about the vote and using your voting power, and so many people have fought for us to be able to be in this moment right now to exercise this power that we have, this really grand ability that people aren’t even aware of.’
In past generations, slaves and their offspring dreamed of a time when they could live the lives that many of their descendants have today. Sadly, the system of oppression still maintains its grip over the psyches of Black people, a form of mental slavery; taught that they are worthless, some even believing that they were born by mistake.
This comes up in the book when Amal, the main character, joins a poetry workshop in prison and one of their exercises is to write down all their mistakes; a fellow prisoner writes, ‘Being born’.
‘We have to, with a sense of urgency, teach our young people that they were born on purpose,’ Yusef tells me. ‘Because, if the world is telling them that they were born a mistake, that they are not a full human being afforded the full human rights of the establishment… We’ve seen the effects of this thinking. We’ve seen this, the systems in place in America are not broken, they are working exactly as they were imagined.’
In Punching The Air, Amal is a smart, creative young man based on Yusef himself. He manages to get into the art school of his dreams, but finds himself limited by the curriculum. When he questions his teacher, Ms. Rinaldi, about the dominance of white European artists in their lessons, he is labelled disruptive by his teacher and sent out of the class.
A similar story appears in Akala’s book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, which I read last year, and it’s an incident that will be familiar to many young Black men.
Systemic unconscious bias is virulent, invisible but at the root of so many failures; the failure of our education systems to value Black history and innovation, the failure of teaching training to provide adequate cultural awareness and, ultimately, the failure to give young Black people equal opportunities.
The magic of Punching The Air, which Yusef wrote with award-winning writer Ibi Zoboi, is that it humanises the lived experience of systemic oppression. The book takes you into Amal’s world with the aid of beautifully written prose, often laid out in inventive ways on the page.
It’s poetic, emotive, immersive and powerful on so many levels. It has the potential to break down people’s preconceptions about Black boys, who are still largely viewed through the white lens as criminals, violent, drug dealers, aggressive, intimidating, troublemakers, sexual predators… the list of stereotypes is long and full of negative imagery.
The hope that the book provides lies in us being able to vicariously walk in each other’s shoes we get the opportunity to experience: ‘What if I am a Ms. Rinaldi?’, ‘What if I am the officer in the jail, mistreating an individual and don’t know this person is here because of the politics surrounding his skin colour?’
Punching The Air is part of the toolkit so that young people who are experiencing oppression get to realise the reason why we named the main character Amal, which means Hope… We want you to know that you should never give up hope.
Once you give up hope you become your worst enemy, you begin to become the embodiment of the tricknology in the Black communities that says, ‘You’re gonna be dead or in jail by the time you reach the age of 21’. When you ask a young person where they got that thought from, they don’t know.
‘The book is a love offering. It gives people the opportunity to see things in ways they may not have seen them before. It opens up a dialogue that is so desperately needed in spaces where we are and in spaces where we are not,’ he continues. ‘So the future generations, that are here now, who happen to be the children of former slave owners, the children of former slaves, are waking up and realising that they have an opportunity to use their privilege to change the future and that’s what this book is about.’
Question, how many times have you heard a successful Black person say, ‘I’m lucky to be here, I could have ended up dead or in jail’? It’s almost as if they’re the only two possible outcomes and it’s something that is ingrained, I’ve even said it myself. A mantra that has somehow been indoctrinated generation after generation, as if that’s all Black people can expect for themselves and anything that is not jail or death has arrived by some amazing twist of fate.
Yusef speaks about the projects, or government-owned public housing. Marketed as affordable housing, they became Black ghettos, left to deteriorate and becoming a manifestation of the way in which Black people had been dehumanised.
‘What happens in these places, people are duped, they’re told they’ll be given something that they’re not given,’ he says. ‘In the housing projects they’re given rats and insects and infestations of all kinds of degradation. It’s to make sure that as you look out into your community you then internalise what you see.’
Oppression and racism are overt in the south. In the north it’s covert. You have more questions about people’s expression, you think, ‘What did they mean by that?’ – in the south, they call you what they mean.
In New York, I was living in a reality where there was confusion, ‘We’re not peeing on you, it’s raining’. I’m like, ‘But this don’t look like rain’ and all of us are experiencing that and we’re trying to figure out, ‘Is this rain?’ because we’re trying to believe what the system is telling us.
This internalisation of hatred and degradation is what distorts the Black psyche in so many communities across America and the rest of the world. An obliteration of self-esteem, a lack of self-love and almost inevitable self-sabotage.
It’s rooted in the subconscious through generational oppression and the constant reminder that white skin is precious, something to be coveted, while Black skin is a burden, ugly, wrong.
‘White supremacy and white male dominance have been institutionalised and institutionally protected so, as you start to realise the truth, that the nightmare of America starts to become so real. It’s greater than a let down,’ Yusef says. ‘You realise that you are not considered a full human being, even to this day. You realise that when they shoot someone who looks like you, or your sister, or your mother, or your father, we the ones who pay taxes are paying for their mistakes.’
After George Floyd’s murder it felt as though the world was finally waking up to what Black people have been speaking about for years. Protests took place all over the world. Pledges were made to stand with Black people, to be allies in the battle for equality.
Racial awareness seems to be on the agenda everywhere you look. After fighting the judicial system in America and spending his entire life fighting the power structures that oppress him, how does Yusef feel now the tide seems to be turning?
It feels empowering, it feels purposeful, there’s a great deal of power that we’re experiencing, but what I want us to understand, which is more important, is that we cannot stop. We are living in a reality right now where it’s on the line and if we stop we won’t achieve the goal.
This might not be achieved in our lifetime, but now we understand the African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast go by yourself but if you want to go far, go together’. It’s not about having a weekend plan, or a yearly plan, it’s not even about having a five-year plan, this is about having a generational plan. It’s about breaking generational curses.
I wonder how Yusef managed to survive being imprisoned for a heinous crime that he didn’t commit. How do you keep your mental health intact? How do you escape the physical, and mental, prison? I went through my own fight with the law a few years ago and was fortunate to be found Not Guilty in my trial. I don’t know how I would have kept myself from going insane if the verdict had gone against me.
Everybody is in a prison of some sort. What’s beautiful about being able to talk to people who’ve gone through really traumatic experiences is to get the wisdom of, ‘What did they do? How did they get through it?’
I prayed of course, and they say prayer is when you talk to God. But what people don’t understand is that, when you meditate, it’s when God talks back. It’s when you get the opportunity to be still and listen, and hear things that wouldn’t have normally [been] heard.
He speaks about meditation and positive visualisation. In spiritual practice there’s a belief in the power of imagination and attaching a feeling to what you’re visualising. Yusef used this to take himself out of the situation he was in, to imagine how it would feel when he was finally released, finally the truth about his innocence uncovered and finally exonerated.
With Black History Month underway in the UK, it’s a critical time for institutions to utilise the increased awareness of Blackness and its contribution to global culture. Not just for this month, as we usually do, but all year long, showcasing and highlighting the historical importance of Black culture and ingenuity.
It’s about teaching a wider view of history in schools so that every child, no matter what their ethnicity, is made aware that our heritage has not been shaped exclusively by white men, but by a complex series of events, movements, cultures and contributions from people of all colours and backgrounds.
Yusef concludes by speaking about the power of teaching one’s own history. ‘As you teach your history you do something profound, you give people purpose, you give them a reason to stand up straight as opposed to cowering,’ he says.
‘You give yourself the ability to see, ‘That’s right, we did contribute to everything.’ You look around and see that the street lights were created by a Black person… We have to keep on pushing forward because the truth is in what’s not being said and not being told and taught. The truth is that we are great and if we believe we are great, guess what we will produce in the future? More greatness.’
Marcus Barnes is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter here.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact Stop Hate UK by visiting their website www.stophateuk.org/talk