Dr. Yusef Salaam is many things: An award-winning public speaker and author, an outspoken fighter for transformational social and racial justice, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, and a father of ten children aged 5-25. He is also a member of the Exonerated Five, the group of five teenagers who were falsely accused and convicted of rape in the Central Park Jogger case of 1989. At just 15, Salaam lost his freedom. He was thrust into a national conversation about the carceral state, systemic racism, and innocence itself. But ultimately, it was a conversation about his very own freedom, which he lost for six years and eight months.
Today, Dr. Salaam’s innocence is widely known — as is his story thanks to Ava Duvernay’s six-part miniseries, When They See Us — and he spends his time working with those same friends to enact meaningful changes to the criminal justice system and to keep talking about the ways the justice system does not protect him or others like him. He’s also a well-respected author, and his latest, the memoir, Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in The Pursuit of Racial Justice comes out this month.
Fatherly spoke to Dr. Salaam about parenting, how he talks to his kids about the world, prison reform, and what gives him hope for the future.
How would you describe yourself as a dad?
I think I’d describe myself as a dad and father who wants their children to be able to experience as much of life as they imagined. [If you have an experience like mine], quite often, you want to shelter your children. You don’t want them to be out of your sight. A lot of us, in terms of the Exonerated Five, we still have those sheltering arms.
I’m also realizing that I need to make sure that my kids have the opportunity to be children as they are children, and as they are approaching adulthood. They need to be able to experience [my parenting] in a way that’s wise, but that’s not too overbearing, you know?
How have your life experiences guided you as a parent?
I think with the experiences that I went through specifically, there’s always a void. I find myself leaning on my wife more [when my kids ask questions I don’t know the answers to]. She never went to prison. She has more of a, “Okay, I remember this when I was growing up, and this is what I can tell the kids.” She helps them with that.
I have this thing that I always tell my children, “Stay on point.” What “stay on point” means is that even if you are about to cross the street, and you know that this is a one-way street, and you’re looking in the direction that traffic is supposed to be going, you need to look the other way. Because life knocked me down. That knock-down caused me to have a seriousness about life.
How does this seriousness show through?
Life, for me, is not, “Okay, I’ll get to it later. I’ll figure it out later.” When I was a 15-year-old, the day that I got locked up, I woke up, I thought, “This is what I’m gonna do today.”
I had lamb chops in the oven. I was broiling them. I never got an opportunity to eat that meal. I was arrested when my food was still in the oven. I was arrested and I was taken to prison and I came home seven years later. That abrupt awakening to what Malcolm X would call the “American nightmare” is something that I always see, and something that I always understand.
My children are connected through social media to everything we are trying to show to them. Sometimes, even those things that they see, people look at them with the eye of: “Oh, wow. That’s terrible, what happened to George Floyd, what happened to Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell.” All of the people known and unknown, it’s so terrible.
At the same time, my children, I don’t want to describe it as an opportunity, but in a way, I do. They never got to experience that type of life. Being a pariah. Being a daughter or a mother or a father or a son to someone who has been made into a villain. And they see me talking and speaking about the injustices that are going on in the world — and in a way it causes them to be favored and protected. But at the same time, I think, just like every parent whose name is known, sometimes that child might want to test the waters.
Test the waters?
I tell my son, all the time: “don’t jump off the bed!” And of course, he does. The other day, he hurt himself doing it. My parenting skills kicked in and I didn’t go over there and rub his booboo. I looked at him and I felt this shift. I said, “Get up. You have to know that when you fall in life, you can get back up. Now, get up.”
He got up, he was like, “okay.” He was four at the time — he just turned five. You want to shelter this young boy from everything bad. But you know that sheltering your children is not the best thing. You have to socialize them carefully so they understand what’s at stake, and who they are.
So what lessons do you try to impart?
I always talk about the who, what, where, why, and when in regards to them. They need to know who they are because life is not going to be a mirror for them. Life for black folks has never been a mirror. We’ve been looking out of a window. It’s slowly changing. It is slowly changing. But, in that truth, I make sure my children get a parallel education.
So even though school may be saying stuff, [my kids] need to know they are the inventors of mathematics, that they come from greatness, so that they see themselves, even if history is not reflecting them through school. I’m not saying it is or isn’t. But it’s about how the child is being socialized in society to know that they matter. We have to let them know, psychosocially, that they matter. That happens, hopefully, in school. But if it doesn’t, it most certainly should happen at home.
I definitely am a proponent for that and I advocate for that all the time.
Speaking of parallel education — I just learned the other day that a Black inventor, Garrett Morgan, invented the three-light traffic signal system. That is everywhere on the planet. I had no idea.
And to that point — what does it mean [that you don’t know that]? What would that mean to a people to realize that, because sometimes that stuff is swept under the rug? And then it comes out, “Oh yeah, they invented this.” But the way that it’s talked about, it’s almost as if the person receiving the information is being taught that it’s the exception. That this is not who these people are. That this is not the norm. This is only the exception. But this is the norm!
My good friend Les Brown told me a real interesting truth. He said, “If you speak to a person as they could be, you raise them to where they should be. But if you speak to a person where they are, you leave them where they are.”
That’s very powerful.
When you teach people, “Wow, this was created by a Black person,” that’s not just by chance, that he woke up and said, “Let me tell them to make a yellow stoplight.” No, that’s an inventor. And that’s the truth. The truth that Dr. John Henrik Clarke spoke about as well. That we weren’t slaves. We didn’t bring slaves to America. And if you teach people that, that’s the same thing as saying, if you begin a people’s history with slavery, everything else looks like progress.
How do you talk to your children about your life?
My children know exactly who we are, and they know exactly what is going on. The great thing about it is that they understand we are fighting for human and civil rights. And that our lives are a reflection of that. That we are survivors.
I did have to tell the older children, especially the older boys, the types of things they had to watch out for. The “talk” that everyone talks about now, happened differently in our community and in our homes. That talk is really more about wisdom and making sure that you listen to your gut. That the universe will never steer you wrong. A lot of times you feel it, and if you listen to what the feeling is, then you’ll be able to be guided, always.
What are you focusing on, in terms of that fight for human and civil rights right now?
Right now we have a bill we are trying to get passed that would limit deceptive practices by police officers in interrogations. When you think about the basis of “law” — and I say “law” because it’s different in everyone’s minds — some people think about police officers and the law itself being there for all of us. That’s absolutely not true. That’s what the system purports itself to be, but that’s absolutely not true.
And because it’s not true, we have to see if we can protect ourselves against a law that was created for white supremacy and white male dominance, that was carried out and enforced for white supremacy and white male dominance. Right?
We’re trying to change the system, but not necessarily through acts of reformation. We don’t want reform, per se. We want abolition, ultimately, that changes the system from what it is to a system that is better, a system that is inclusive, and a system that is balanced.
What system would you like to see?
The system that is in place right now is absolutely not a system that is for all of the people. We live in the divided states of America. No matter how much people say that they are going to unite us, we really experience a divide. We really experience the margins of life.
And that’s one of the big pushes we are hoping to get passed right now. I was talking to some people the other day, and it dawned on me that one of the real interesting and important changes that we need in society is in relation to my case. Right?
What do you mean?
What I’m talking about specifically is when the real perpetrator [who raped the Central Park jogger] came forward and said that he did it, and he had proof. They knew that he did this. But he could never be charged with raping the central park jogger. Because of this thing called the statute of limitations.
Prison dynamics happen in a very interesting way. A prisoner who comes in who might be a thief who stole an old woman’s wallet and kicked her out of her wheelchair and snapped a selfie with her and runs off is more respected than a person who rapes.
If you’ve seen When They See Us and you’ve seen Part 4, as an example — Cory’s story of his horrific experience of being labeled a rapist is what prison is like for people who go to prison for rape, for the most part. And so for that crime to have a statute of limitations….
That law should not be, “Oh, you know what? After seven years, I can come out and say I raped someone,” and then they say, “Sorry, we can’t charge you.” You still did that crime, just like murder. Murder has no statute of limitations. I don’t think rape should have any as well.
Is there anything you feel you’d want to see on a federal level — or from the Biden administration — right now?
I’ve never been a person who has been a fan of administrations. Even though I know we have to vote, and we have to participate, and I think it’s important that we participate in the political process, what’s more important is us participating in our own lives. We should never give the power over to the system and say, “Oh, the system will fix this, the system will work this out.”
A lot of us go about our daily lives after we’ve voted. We have to fully participate. We have to know that we are making ourselves free. We are making sure we live in a just society because we are participating on all levels.
It’s not just the ballot box. It’s so much more.
What my hope is, with regards to this current administration, is that we, the people, understand our power. That we begin to realize that we can’t just go about business as usual.
We voted Biden and Harris into office. That’s a good thing. We should be punching the air. We should be looking at that as a victory. But we absolutely should not go back to sleep.
I think we, as a people, should hold our officials that we vote into office accountable — for what they have promised that they will do. Because we know, in the Black and Brown community, they have a term called ‘politricks.’ What we know about politricks is that people who are elected into political offices often say they will do things and they don’t do anything that they said they are going to do.
We’re experiencing that right now under the Biden administration.
We’re talking about people’s lives. We shouldn’t be funding bombing Syria, or any other place for that matter, when people are hurting in this country.
And when we look at people’s abilities to live, other countries are getting it right.
And we are not.
We are a young nation. I think now because so-called slavery has been abolished — other than slavery going on by another name in the modern-day cotton fields of America called the prison industrial complex — I think that those who have immigrated to this country who are in power in this country should look at the countries that they’ve come from and receive instruction.
Michael Moore did the film a couple years back called, “Where to Invade Next?” And in that film, you saw the opportunity of what prison looked like [in other countries]. It was a place that people went to, to get an act that they did, reformed. And then they went back into society as full human beings. It was not a punitive thing where you are continuously punished for a mistake that you made.
Right. It was actually in the business of healing.
In America, we don’t have correctional institutes. We have prisons. We live in a prison society, where people get locked up and the key gets thrown away.
I think that the Biden-Harris administration should be the change that we want. I think that they should really take it upon themselves to steamroll change across America.
What do you want other Americans, and especially white Americans, to be teaching their children as they raise them?
I would tell them that your children are being raised in a world where they are neighbors to my children. And if we really ponder what that means, then we would do better. We wouldn’t want to raise our children to become bullies.
I just think from a base, moral level, we really should begin with the premise that we are neighbors, and that we coexist. It’s better to live in harmony than to live in strife. It’s better for us to be able to get along in a meaningful way, as opposed to one person oppressing the other. We should eradicate oppression, and that eradication should start with all of us.
And with white children, they need to understand that there’s a thing called racism in the world, and that we can use our privilege to make sure that we can change that. That we don’t have to be a part of a racist system adding to the evil of it all. We can become lights of goodness in the world of darkness.
A radical kindness — and empathy that’s active.
Yes. Absolutely. We have to actually participate. We have to live full lives. And for those of us who are actively participating in [fighting oppression], we should not be vilified. We should be celebrated for it. And I’m thinking about folks like Fred Hampton, you know? What we’re fighting for is freedom.
What do you see today that gives you hope for the future?
You know what gives me hope today? Our ancestor’s wildest dreams. Us knowing, and coming into a consciousness, of our own self. Where we are finally saying, “Enough is enough.”
My mother told me, years ago, out of the interrogation room, she said to me, “They need you to participate in whatever it is that they are trying to do. Do not participate. Refuse.” And so, to not be a co-conspirator in my own repression is important. Right?
I have a backbone that grows stronger every day because of the knowledge that I was born on purpose, because I was one of over 400 million options, and I made it. All of those things bring so much life into us as a people. My hope and my happiness is knowing that the future is alive and well because of our ancestors wildest dreams finally waking up, finally taking their rightful places in the world, pushing back in a way that’s meaningful, and for people that have been privileged to be using their privilege in a way that’s powerful.
I think all of that is inspiring. All of that gives me tremendous hope. But it has to continue.