By Yusef Salaam
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This inspirational memoir serves as a call to action from prison reform activist Yusef Salaam, of the Exonerated Five, that will inspire us all to turn our stories into tools for change in the pursuit of racial justice.
They didn't know who they had.
So begins Yusef Salaam telling his story. No one's life is the sum of the worst things that happened to them, and during Yusef Salaam's seven years of wrongful incarceration as one of the Central Park Five, he grew from child to man, and gained a spiritual perspective on life. Yusef learned that we're all "born on purpose, with a purpose." Despite having confronted the racist heart of America while being "run over by the spiked wheels of injustice," Yusef channeled his energy and pain into something positive, not just for himself but for other marginalized people and communities.
Better Not Bitter is the first time that one of the now Exonerated Five is telling his individual story, in his own words. Yusef writes his narrative: growing up Black in central Harlem in the '80s, being raised by a strong, fierce mother and grandmother, his years of incarceration, his reentry, and exoneration. Yusef connects these stories to lessons and principles he learned that gave him the power to survive through the worst of life's experiences. He inspires readers to accept their own path, to understand their own sense of purpose. With his intimate personal insights, Yusef unpacks the systems built and designed for profit and the oppression of Black and Brown people. He inspires readers to channel their fury into action, and through the spiritual, to turn that anger and trauma into a constructive force that lives alongside accountability and mobilizes change.
This memoir is an inspiring story that grew out of one of the gravest miscarriages of justice, one that not only speaks to a moment in time or the rage-filled present, but reflects a 400-year history of a nation's inability to be held accountable for its sins. Yusef Salaam's message is vital for our times, a motivating resource for enacting change. Better, Not Bitter has the power to soothe, inspire and transform. It is a galvanizing call to action.
Born on Purpose, with a Purpose
THEY DIDN’T KNOW WHO THEY HAD.
I say this often, and most people think it is something I figured out after being imprisoned for a crime I did not commit. It is not. From very early on, I innately knew that I had a destiny that existed beyond the one the criminal justice system attempted to assign to me. I just needed to live long enough for that purpose to come to fruition.
And to be honest, my survival wasn’t the only thing at stake. My physical survival, yes, but also my mental and emotional endurance.
They didn’t know who they had.
In 1989, I was run over by the spiked wheels of justice. I was vilified in such a way that I became a pariah, a scourge. Within the first few weeks of the accusations that would turn Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and myself—then known as the Central Park Five—into poster children for Black deviance, a tsunami of media rolled out the proverbial red carpet, leading us to our destruction at the hands of the American justice system.
On the day I was convicted, my hope died. It would take years before it was resurrected again. I was sixteen years old when I stood in the hallway of the courthouse and someone ran up to me saying, “They have a verdict!” In that moment, I truly believed that we’d be exonerated. Surely they would see that we didn’t do this, I thought. I’d been out on bail up until that point, so although I’d had to endure the questions, the intense media scrutiny, I was still giving my mom a kiss before bed at night. I was still talking to my cousins, talking to my friends.
That verdict shattered me. I was a child. But I didn’t get to go home with my mom and turn myself in later. They put the handcuffs on me right there and then. No hugs. No long goodbyes. No letting me change my clothes or shoes. They took us away immediately. I felt a profound sense of powerlessness in that moment, a moment I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. My body shook with fear. I’m still not sure how I found the strength to stand up. What, do you mean right now? I felt like I was being led to the slaughterhouse. Aside from child molestation, rape was the worst crime to go to jail for. They were supposed to send us back to the juvenile detention center, but they didn’t. Instead, they intentionally sent us directly to Rikers Island, a notoriously violent prison from which many men never returned.
I’m gonna die.
They tried to kill me.
They stole years from us. From me.
But I didn’t die.
Because I was somehow always clear that I was born on purpose, with a purpose. With that knowledge, I was able to keep my mind free, even when my body was imprisoned.
When I think about how I was able to survive this thing and why I believe in the power of purpose in a person’s life, I think about the ancient stories of Abraham ()1 found in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Stories I uncovered only after deep-diving into these sacred texts while in prison.
Abraham () was chosen. He was called to a specific assignment. When they threw him into the fire, all he had to say was “God, help me!” and God told the fire to be cool and safe. That’s what this journey has been like for me. Of course, I’m not Abraham (). I’m no prophet. But I do believe I have a purpose that made it so that despite the things designed to kill me—the racism, the criminal system of injustice, the attempted assault while in prison—it was God who told the prison to be cool and safe for me. So I didn’t suffer the same fate of others accused of and imprisoned for rape. The code didn’t apply to me for some reason. There was, I believe, a light that the guards and other prisoners saw in and around me. A light that made them say, “You don’t belong here.” That doesn’t mean it was easy, not by any means. I had hard and difficult days. But I felt this sense of having a veil, a hedge of protection, following and covering me everywhere I went.
My story is not your typical “how I’ve overcome” narrative. I’ve been so grateful for the ways in which the story of the now Exonerated Five has been told via documentaries and the recent Netflix limited series. Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and all the subsequent interviews may have given you a taste of what some of my life was like after that fateful day in April 1989, but my life did not begin or end that day; my life is more than the sum of the worst things that happened to me. Now is the time for me to tell my whole story.
I not only hope to share who I was then and who I am now, but also what I want to tell you about most is who I was before 1989. I want to tell you about the foundation laid by both my family and my faith, which ensured that I would not only survive this awful injustice but also thrive in the midst of it.
I also want you to know that no matter where you come from or what circumstances you may find yourself in, you can thrive in the midst of your trials.
I have a somewhat mystical perspective when it comes to my experience. I firmly believe that when you look at what transpired in my life—between then and now—what you see is the hand of God. You may ask, how is that possible? How can a terrible injustice such as the one I lived with for almost twenty-five years be representative of anything divine at work?
I believe that everything that’s happening to you is actually happening for you. Everything we experience in life—from our greatest joys to our deepest pain and hardship—is shaping and creating us. It’s preparing us for what we will need later on in our lives. I was ripped out of society and lodged back in the womb of America, what some in America would call “the belly of the beast.” Like many Black men and women, I was in a place where I was forced to be dependent on the system that in its creation is designed to use and harm Black bodies for profit. And it’s a dependence that can become too familiar, that you can feel too accustomed to, if you’re not careful. Far too often men and women are physically released back into society who aren’t mentally, emotionally, or spiritually ready. They experience that rebirth too soon. They aren’t taught how to detach from the incubator, so to speak. They are still dependent on being fed by a deeply dysfunctional system. But when the cell doors shut, I knew—even at such an early age—that if I was not careful to protect my mind and heart, I could become attached to the process of getting my nourishment from a system that didn’t care about me at all. I had to keep reminding myself that this experience was one that God would use to teach me something I would need in the future. I now firmly believe that I was being stretched, broken, and adjusted in a different way in order to be birthed back into society as a person who now is fearless.
One clear and present example of God’s hand in all this is the fact that the very person who castigated us, the person who—without knowing us—hated us the most and spent $85,000 for ads in national newspapers to bring back the death penalty in order to poison public opinion against us, would ultimately become the forty-fifth president of the United States. God knew I needed to have a backbone that would allow me to not cower in the face of it all. I needed to have a level of strength that would allow me to continue to stand tall in the face of my vilifier and continue to speak truth to power.
I think every person who has been to jail instinctively responds to the sound of cell doors closing. The steel clanging of bars and the echo that lasts long after the door has shut. That sound is a trigger for me that I still can’t shake, sending shivers and chills through my body. A few years ago I went to Sing Sing to do my TED Talk. I was excited to be able to share my story with men who might have been struggling in the same ways I once had. At first, I tried to bring my laptop, phone, and tablet inside, and the guard was like, “This is jail. Don’t you remember? You can’t bring any of that in here.” But I had forgotten.
Ultimately, I left everything I’d prepared on my laptop and phone outside the prison and entered with just a few written notes and my mind. But when I heard those cell doors close, the clanging and the echo, it pulled me back to my fifteen- and sixteen- and twenty-one-year-old selves. For a moment, I panicked. My blood ran cold and that familiar sinking feeling lodged itself in my gut. They know I’m just a visitor, right? They are not going to leave me in here, right? The trauma of my past was entwined in me; it had connected itself to my body.
My experience taught me how to deal with fear. Like many have said, fear is nothing more than false evidence appearing as reality, and I believe that to be true. After all, it was fear of Black and Brown bodies that led America to damn the five of us, for the false evidence linking us to a crime to be taken for fact. When you conquer a fear once, you will find yourself being more courageous the next time you are faced with it. Sometimes fear is allowed to be present for a while; sometimes we should permit ourselves to experience fear in order to grow from it. In doing so, we grow more courageous and we can share those lessons fear taught us as we move toward operating in our purpose. You see, everybody was born on purpose. Even the thief and the murderer. I’ve learned through my own life that, as much as we despise it and wish it weren’t true, there’s a necessity for evil, for difficulties. There is no light without darkness.
You and I were born on purpose and for a purpose. This idea becomes crystal clear when we realize that when our parents created us, the person we would ultimately become was one of over four hundred million options. We have sperm racing toward an egg, and the odds of us being us are astronomical. Think about it! There was intention there. Part of understanding my story is reconciling the concept that we all have a great thing to do in this world once we realize who we are.
Haven’t we all, at some point in time, wondered, What am I here for? What am I supposed to be doing? And especially if, like me, you find yourself in a less than favorable circumstance, these questions are often first and foremost in your mind. But the thing is, I’ve found that the answers to those questions lie in what is showing up in my life. The key is to be still long enough to really listen to what your experiences and circumstances are telling you. Once we do that, we just might find ourselves saying, “Oh, I was supposed to go through this,” or “I was meant to grow through that.” I hope those two perspectives will change your outlook and your movements in life, as they did mine.
Instead of deciding to believe that their terrible circumstance actually has the hand of God written on it, many people will question God. Some even go as far as cursing God. They want to know, “Why is this happening to me?” And to a certain extent, I understand why we are prone to do this. The Exonerated Five were children. We were fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years old. Why would such a traumatic event be allowed to happen to five innocent kids? A few of my brothers in this experience felt this way. But, personally, I would never have been able to survive if I didn’t allow the experience to deepen my faith. My time in prison became a spiritual awakening that I’m grateful to be able to finally share. It was part of my metamorphosis. And just like the caterpillar that must wrap itself in a chrysalis and endure a season of waiting until its full beauty is realized, I, too, had to be wrapped up for a season in order to be revealed to the world as the person I am today.
As my mother always says, “Nobody leaves here alive.” The wealthiest place on earth has never been Africa, where there is gold and diamonds; or the Middle East, where there’s oil. The richest place on earth is the graveyard. It’s the place where everyone’s unfulfilled hopes, dreams, and aspirations have been laid to rest. My challenge to you is this: No matter what life has taken you through, try to live full and die empty.
So it’s important that you don’t just read stories like mine and then go about your life, business as usual. Take a look at the evil that showed up in my life and figure out what your light will be. What will be your purpose in this moment? Whether you’re a child of a former enslaved African or a child of a former slave owner, how do you use your present-day privilege to help the cause of racial injustice? Can I leverage the resources I have and start donating to causes and organizations that help people who have been marginalized and trampled upon? Can I give my time and skills to work with communities and organizations at the grassroots level? Can I take my voice and use it to defend the voiceless, to have the difficult conversations needed to change hearts and minds? These are the questions I hope you ask, even as you unpack what your own purpose is.
In the wake of George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe”; the ambush of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, Kentucky; and all the protests that followed, there have been many stories written about injustice and systemic racism. In most cases, however, these articles capture only one part of the story: the impact of an event or the collective action that followed. Often, we tend to lean on binaries that help move our agendas along, both in general and in the realm of social justice. We hear about either the looters or the peaceful protesters. Never about the oppressive forces that led to such an outpouring of rage and grief being expressed in the streets. Never about the work and progress accomplished as a result of the resistance. In order to mobilize for change, we must be able to connect the dots between a murder in Minneapolis and brutality in Biloxi; between redlining in Chicago and Black homelessness rates in Los Angeles. And there’s another side to these headlines. A more intimate perspective that is just as impactful in changing minds and hearts is the story of Breonna Taylor moving from Michigan to Kentucky for a better life. It’s a story of George Floyd serving at-risk youth with a Bible study group in Houston. Knowing the collective narrative is important. Knowing the story of the individual is transformative.
Linking the individual narrative with the collective one paints a clearer picture of what’s actually happening to Black and Brown people in this country. No room is left for speculation or assumption. That said, it’s vital to continue telling the earthly, collective part of any story, of our story. How white supremacy embedded in the American system of injustice infringed on the rights of five Black boys and their families. How Korey Wise experienced deep, terrible trauma while behind bars. How Raymond Santana returned to prison because he was unable to find meaningful employment, making it more difficult for him to bounce back from our ordeal. Ours is the story of five boys who were brought low only to rise again because the truth can never stay buried. Ours is the story of five boys who were buried alive and forgotten. Ours is the story of a system that forgot that we were seeds. The story of how this system is actually alive and sick. How it is operating exactly as it was designed. How Black and Brown and poor people in marginalized communities are unable to financially fight against this system, and that’s by design. How anybody who is trapped in that marginal space becomes part of the oil that keeps the machine moving. All of that grit and grime, the trials and triumphs, the injustice and inequity, four hundred years of American history, are part of a necessary conversation that I will continue to have as I write and speak around the world.
Yet, I do know there is more. So much more.
The Central Park jogger case is actually a love story between God and His people about a system of injustice placed on trial itself, then toppled, in order to produce what amounts to a miracle in modern time. But as the old saying goes: “When you’re walking through hell, keep on walking.” There is always something on the other side. There is purpose on the other side. Sure, it’s hard to see it that way. You can’t always see the path, even when you’re on it. But one day, just like I did, you’ll turn around and reflect on the journey and say, “My God, look at what I went through. This didn’t happen to me, but this happened for me. I came out stronger.” Will there be indelible scars? Yes, of course. The way I move through the world and how I see myself have forever been altered by the levels of pain and uncertainty I had to climb my way out of. But I returned to society and learned to live on my own two feet. And now I get to show people how they can live on theirs. In the immortal words of the great modern philosopher Cardi B, “Knock me down nine times, but I get up ten.”
Islam says, “Don’t ask for help from anyone or anything except for God. There is nothing worthy of worship except God.” So while family, friends, and mentors are important, when it comes to who is driving my life, I’m thinking that God is over and above even the saints or my ancestors. God is the One who is the author and the controller of this whole thing. We really don’t have control. Our control and happiness come from being in sync with God. Whatever happens—the good, the bad, or the ugly—our acceptance opens us up to receive peace, harmony, and comfort. We cannot force a square into a space that wants only a circle. We simply say, “Man, God is good.” Let’s release ourselves from the pressure of being in control.
I’ll never forget what Les Brown said to me a few years back. He said, “Yusef, I tell people all the time, it’s not a matter of whether you fall in life, because you will fall. When you fall, try to land on your back because if you can look up, you can get up.” We all have the power to come back. I chose to believe that if I surrendered my control, God would never leave me. That was what helped me come back better and not bitter.
To be clear, my story does not begin with the Central Park jogger case. It begins with a young Black boy growing up in Harlem with a fierce mother who is incredibly loving and extremely protective of her children. It begins with a village of support and love surrounding me and infusing in me a confidence that would serve me greatly later. And just as my story doesn’t begin with the Central Park Five trial, it doesn’t end with the exoneration nor the multimillion-dollar settlement from the City of New York. Threaded through it all is how I’ve taken the injustice of a system that tried to destroy me and turned it inside out into a life of service. What I’ve lived through so far has required that I accept even the ugly circumstances I’ve experienced as God’s will for my life, in order to be equipped to embrace the future. Acceptance—more than even forgiveness—is what is necessary for our forward movement. And acceptance can absolutely live alongside our demand for accountability from those who have wronged us. That’s ultimately what this book is about.
What happened to the now Exonerated Five was a tragedy on the ground level, in the earthly realm. We were criminalized and dehumanized. But parallel to that was another reality. A greater intention. Spiritually, I had to say, “Wow, look at God!” No one could have created a story as dynamic as this.
My hope is that when you read this book, this stance can be applied to your own life. Evaluate it and realize that everything is ultimately purposeful. You have a purpose. Consider Joseph () from the Bible. Or Yusuf () in the Qur’an. His trials were only a drop in the bucket when we consider his victories. Consider the stories of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and Fannie Lou Hamer. We have these narratives that guide us, and too often we write them off as simply stories to uplift us. But they are not just about one person living one life, but rather they are complex narratives with the potential to reveal something about our own existence. They show us that we, too, can have personal power. We can be triumphant. We don’t have to fall in life and stay down. We can get up. We are all favored. And in a way, that’s what I hope this book does for every person who reads it.
When I look at my life post-release and how people celebrate the fact that we endured this awful thing, I always say, “What happened to me and for me can happen to you and for you as well.” You may look at people and put them on these pedestals, but really, we are all servants. The more enlightened we become, the more humble we become. So, more than anything, when you close this book, I want you to dream again. I want my story to give you hope. I want you to say to yourself, “I’m going to try to take advantage of every opportunity I’m given. All the visions I have, let me carve out time to do it.”
1 Please note: I have used () throughout the text as a sign of reverence. Muslims are not allowed to mention the name of any prophet without saying , which means “Peace be upon him.”
We are at war / The bulk of which will not be physical / The bulk of which is mental…
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO EAT?”
It was gray outside. The clouds were dense, hovering just above our heads. My mother, my sister, my mother’s friend Ayesha Grice, and her niece Beverly all stood outside the car waiting with huge smiles. They were picking me up from prison. Finally. Still wearing my prison jacket, I melted into their hugs. All I could think about was putting one foot in front of the other, making sure that the release was actually happening. It was both beautiful and frightening to be out.
The night before, I’d tossed and turned with anxiety. I didn’t want to go to sleep. What if I don’t wake up? What if somebody kills me just before I leave?
Leaving the adult facility didn’t feel real. I was finally going home, but I was terrified. It felt like I was escaping. Like I was a fugitive, and at any moment they were going to say there had been a terrible mistake and return me to my cell. But I was free. I’m fairly sure that I didn’t really celebrate until I was back home, sitting in my apartment, trying on my clothes. I stayed up for thirty-six hours after my release just trying to take it all in: seeing my family’s faces, our home I hadn’t seen in almost seven years, the noise of the city streets, now loud and unignorable even though it had once simply been an unnoticed daily sound track playing in the background of my life.
But once in the car, I had my first decision to make. A relatively simple one, I suppose, but to have the power to make any kind of decision felt monumental. I’m not sure anyone around me at the time really understood how abnormal it felt to actually have a choice in something, even something as seemingly mundane as what to eat for breakfast.
“Man, I don’t know. I could eat anything,” I responded.
Only miles down the road from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, we stopped at an IHOP. I sat down in the booth, still pondering this surreal new world I had found myself in, feeling very overwhelmed with trying to process it all, and I asked, “Well, what do you think I should eat?”
My sister said, “I’m going to get a Belgian waffle.”
Just the name, Belgian waffles, sounded so exotic, a delicacy from a far-off place. I said, “I’m going to get that, too!”
Just the day before, my breakfast had been some lumpy oatmeal. Earlier that week it’d been powdered eggs. I would’ve been handed a nearly expired milk carton that had black and brown slivers of something floating in it that was clearly not milk. Are you for real? You mean, I can order whatever I want? I felt like I was dreaming, like I hadn’t fully awakened in that moment.
The server brought out our Belgian waffles and they looked perfectly fine. I was completely floored when my sister said, “This is burnt.” Now sure, the underside was a little charred. And maybe a little bit more than charred, but the top was light and, to my mind, totally edible. But my sister wasn’t having it. She called over the server and asked, “Hey, can you make this over? It’s burnt.”
My face must have registered my shock at the audacity of her request. “Hey, Ace…”
My sister, Aisha, is my number one. We are best friends. She is a year and a half older than me, and I’d always loved hanging out with her and her friends, learning what it meant to be cool. I was already what elders called an old soul. A bit more mature, beyond my years. So hanging out with my older sister seemed normal for me. I’d question her and her friends about girls and they were always cool, saying, “Oh yeah, we’ll let you know. We got you!” Ace would give me input on my style. Just a little, here and there. I had a pair of jeans I designed not too long before being arrested. There was a likeness of Big Daddy Kane on the knee and all kinds of colorful art and patches. My sister added, “Oh, if you add this, or flip the patch diagonally, that’ll put you over the top.” And I did it. She even took some ice and a needle and pierced my ear, which, in the late ’80s, only amplified my cool factor. Hanging with her gave me access to little nuggets of teen wisdom that would take me to the next level.
“Ace… all you had to do was scrape that off. In prison—”
But I stopped myself. I wasn’t in prison anymore.
If you were a prisoner and then you become a returned citizen, for you to have even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich feels like an enormous privilege. If you have tuna fish with actual mayonnaise, you feel like you’re eating a gourmet meal from a Michelin-starred chef.
Unfortunately for this restaurant, they made the choice to take my sister’s plate to the kitchen, scrape off the bottom, and return the same waffle back to her. Wrong move! Aisha was livid, and her response was 100 percent New York. She said, “This is not okay! I’m a paying patron. I need to be able to get what I paid for. This is unacceptable.” And with that they went back and they made it right.
That’s when it hit me: Wow, I’m home. I’m actually free.
- "Salaam's compelling memoir is one of astounding warmth…This book should be read by anyone who wants to hear the story of the Exonerated Five directly from one of its members.”—NPR
- "An important memoir and call to action that sheds light on the personal injustices of mass incarceration."—Library Journal
“Warm, generous, and inspirational: a book for everyone.”—Kirkus
“An uplifting and hopeful book.”—Booklist
"Better Not Bitter is equal parts, a luminous journey of awakening, and an indictment of a system that swallows boys and girls whole, only to spit out their broken bones. It is an urgent and poetic treatise on the human spirit’s ability to make itself whole again over and over. I cried for the little boy who was imprisoned, and rejoiced for the man who emerged years later as a battle tested warrior for justice.”—Shaka Senghor, New York Times bestselling author of Writing my Wrongs
- "Punching the Air is the profound sound of humanity in verse... Utterly indispensable."—Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author (Praise for Punching the Air)
- "Zoboi and Salaam have created nothing short of a masterwork of humanity, with lyrical arms big enough to cradle the oppressed, and metaphoric teeth sharp enough to chomp on the bitter bones of racism. This is more than a story. This is a necessary exploration of anger, and a radical reflection of love, which ultimately makes for an honest depiction of what it means to be young and Black in America." —Jason Reynolds, NYT bestselling author of Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You: A Remix (Praise for Punching the Air)
- On Sale
- May 18, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing