By Sapelo Square
The story of Dr. Yusef Salaam is a story of struggle, resilience, and redemption. As a teenager, he and four other Black and Latinx teens were wrongly convicted for the brutal attack and rape of 28-year-old jogger Trisha Meili in Central Park, Manhattan, and were renamed with the racist moniker “Central Park Five.” Salaam spent nearly seven years in prison on false charges; in 2002, he was finally exonerated when the actual perpetrator confessed to the crime followed by the district attorney’s recommendation that all charges be vacated. Ever since, Salaam has dedicated his life to fighting America’s brutal and racialized criminal justice system, one that is both predicated on and perpetuates the criminalization of Blackness through white supremacy.
The story of the Exonerated Five offers a glimpse into some of the human faces — and thus the human cost — of this system. As we grapple with the realities of structural racism as manifested in the proliferation of prisons and police, we honor and center those who have been most adversely affected by these realities. And as discussions around abolition gain steam, Salaam’s human story offers insight into why supporting the movement is more crucial than ever. As a man of faith, Salaam illuminates how Islam is both an anchor and a guide for bringing us to a better world.
In this Real Talk interview, Sapelo Square’s Senior Editor, Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, hosts Salaam for an intimate conversation about his life journey. The interview touched on everything from Yusef’s upbringing, his relationships in prison, to his vision for the Muslim community and more.
The following three excerpts offer a chronological montage of Yusef’s experiences and the lessons he took from them: From growing up under the care of his Muslim mother, rediscovering faith in prison and navigating community structures after prison, to finally passing on his wisdom to the next generation. The full interview can be accessed at the end of the article.
Salaam talks about how the Islam he grew up with under his mother’s care differed from the Islam he consciously nurtured on his own terms in prison. He takes us through a transformative journey where the circumstances of prison mold him into a leader for other Muslims, compelling him to become more intentional about his faith and practice. The new Yusef is more confident in how he embodies Islam.
Link to full transcript (interview clip: 4:35—10:20)
Salaam emphasizes the importance of community and support systems after prison. He draws our attention to the fact that Islam is fundamentally communal, and that it provides the structures that we need to sustain our spiritual and material needs as a collective. Islam also calls us to deliver its message to all people. He compels us to reflect on whether we’re doing that.
Link to full transcript (interview clip 16:05—19:29)
Salaam explains how he talks to his kids about growing up Black in America. He emphasizes the realities of systemic oppression and injustice faced by Black people, and also underscores how Islam serves to guide him in the pursuit of justice for a better world. He affirms that the oppressor will do his job to oppress, but that his kids should nonetheless continue to strive toward the higher ethic that Islam calls them to in every aspect of their lives.
Link to full transcript (interview clip 19:45—25:05)
Guest Editor: Asad Dandia (@DandiaAsad)