Two days ago, I asked twitter which book I should read next; When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, Better, not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice by Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five, or The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany by Gwen Strauss, then I ran some errands and waited for the results.
While I was out, I talked myself into reading The Nine because reading the daring story of a group of women who not only survived Nazi Germany, but also worked as part of the resistance to that power felt like something I needed. However, when I got home and checked my twitter results, the single vote that had been cast was for Better, not Bitter. I decided if I was going to ask twitter to pick my next book, I had to listen when it did so.
I grabbed the book, headed to the couch and made sure I had at least 45 minutes of reading time so I could get a good start on the book. (I find this is a super useful tactic if I’m not 100% sure I’m going to love a book – setting aside/giving myself enough time in that first reading to get hooked helps me immensely!)
All I can say now is – thank you lone twitter voter!!! I am so grateful that I read this book. It turns out it was exactly the book about resistance that I needed! (Disclaimer, I was sent a free advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.)
Quick summary, in case anyone reading this doesn’t know who the Exonerated Five are, or what this memoir is about. (TW assault, rape) The Exonerated Five are men who, when they were teenagers in 1989, were arrested for a crime they did not commit. On April 19, 1989 a white female jogger was violently assaulted and raped in Central Park, New York. She was beaten so badly that she was in a coma for 12 days. When she woke from her coma, she was unable to speak or walk. To this day, she has no memory of the events, or the six weeks following the assault. The night she was assaulted, a group of teenaged boys carried out a series of attacks on other park goers, throwing rocks at cabs, beating a teacher and robbing him, etc. Police were called and began rounding up boys who were in the park. When the woman was found at 1:30 am their search for her attacker intensified.
Originally six teenage boys were arrested and tried for the rape and attempted murder of the Central Park jogger. Five of them were convicted, largely based on false/coerced confessions acquired after hours long interrogations that included the police lying to and assaulting the accused boys. The boys were interrogated without their parents present, without lawyers present, and without having been mirandized. Their words were still used against them in the court of law. They are now a case study in false confessions, racial profiling, malicious prosecution, the adultification of Black boys, and the inequality of America’s “injustice system” as Salaam often refers to it.
In 2002 all five boys were exonerated. Another man confessed to the crime, and all of the evidence supported his confession (unlike the boys who had no supporting evidence against them).
I was ten years old when this case hit the news. But I remember it. How could I not? At the time the boys were prosecuted, the case was held up across the nation as an example of the violence and rot of New York city. The boys were an example of the worst that cities had to offer, they were painted as born criminals with no value to society. The only place for them was jail. There was no talk of rehabilitation, indeed, quite the opposite. Donald Trump, later to become our 45th president, spent $85,000 on ads calling for New York to bring back the death penalty just for these boys. And they were boys. Innocent boys.
Given the incredibly dark nature of these events and this story, I was wary going into this book. The past two years have been dark in general, but also personally. My family has gone through our own struggles, and they aren’t over yet. I wasn’t sure I could read something that added weight to the darkness I was already struggling to navigate. But the title of this book, Better, not Bitter really does sum it up. Yusef Salaam doesn’t shy away from what happened, but neither does he linger on the negatives, on the violence that was done to him, on the trauma that he endured and persevered through. Instead, he uses those moments as stepping stone. Firmly planting both feet on them, only to show how he leveraged them for greater growth and wisdom.
Yusef Salaam opens his book with a challenge, “No matter what life has taken you through, try to live full and die empty.” By which he means, try to live and achieve your dreams and aspirations, seek and work always to use what is given to you – good, bad, easy, hard – to your benefit (and the benefit of those around you). Live full. Live hopeful. Live like it matters. Or, as he says, live as if you were born on purpose, with a purpose. Indeed, if I had to summarize this book in a single sentence, it would probably be, “You are here for a reason, your job is to discover that reason and live it to the best of your ability.” This message resonates strongly with me.
One of the other messages that Yusef Salaam brings home throughout his book is the idea that who you are not is not dependent on where you are or what is happening to you. We are not defined by the events around us. He recommends spending time really digging into who and what you are – at your core. Embracing where you are, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and metaphysically on life’s journey at any given moment. Learning how you are – how do you move through the world? How do you persist? How do you motivate? How do you react/respond/plan ahead? And of course, searching out why you are. (Why you are who/what you are. Why you are where you are. Why you are how you are.) When you are solid in yourself, you can carry that with you, even when the world tries to paint you as someone, or something else. Indeed, that above so much else seemed to be the secret to Yusef Salaam’s ability to not just survive his ordeal, but thrive during and after his false conviction and unjust imprisonment.
While this book definitely leans heavily into Yusef Salaam’s motivational speaker mindset, it is also a guide for those seeking social justice, prison and police reform, school reform, and equity across all systems. For those who know that the system is rigged, and who would like to work to bring America closer to its stated ideals of upholding the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for ALL of our people, this book talks extensively about why we need change, and what those changes might look like. From changing the way we plan prisons (using reading scores from 4th and 5th graders to determine how many prison beds we will need 10 years down the road… Yes, seriously) to fully funding the services that keep people away from crime and out of jail – schools, mental health services, physical health services, safe, quality housing, healthy food, parks, libraries, recreation centers – all of the things that white middle class Americans take for granted, and which through a series of legal, social and economic decisions have been denied to entirely too many people of color in this country. (See redlining as one example.) Not to mention creating, funding and prioritizing alternatives to police so that when a Black man falls asleep at a Wendy’s drive thru, it is not police who respond, guns out, ready to shoot, but someone who can help the man get across the street to his house, or to a health clinic to ensure he is safe. If we truly value ALL lives, we need to ensure that we are funding rehabilitation and restoration over incarceration. If we want to live up to our ideals, then “throwing away the key” should be the last resort, not the rallying cry.
We, as a nation, need to make the choice to value ALL of the people living within our borders. (In our globalized world, we could make a strong argument that we should value all people regardless of borders, but that is a whole other post.) And we need to make investments that reflect this value. A couple of years ago the people in my state voted down a measure to help fund schools, because the money collected would be pooled and distributed to districts based on their needs, ie; the $100 I paid into the pot might *gasp* be used to improve conditions at a school in another district! (The horror! ~Please note the use of the sarcasm font!) And this is the problem with the mindset currently running rampant in our nation. People believe that their tax dollars should only be used to help them, and no one else. We wouldn’t want those people whoever they are to get any benefit from our hard work… But… *sputters incomprehensibly* that’s not how it works. It is all connected – WE are all connected.
Yusef Salaam reminds of this. He reminds us that while we can only ever be fully responsible for ourselves, we hold each other’s hopes and aspirations, we hold each other’s safety and well being, we hold each other’s very lives in our hands. And part of being responsible for ourselves, is being responsible for the things we hold, for the communities we caretake, and the ones we neglect. Ultimately, Yusef Salaam reminds us that life is all about choices. And in a country obsessed with the idea of individual choices and individual responsibility, we need to work to ensure that ALL of our people have equal access to choices that will propel them forward instead of holding them back. Yusef Salaam reminds us that, “The first step is always found in the first choice. In that moment, because of his first choice, the universe shifts on this man’s behalf… It’s always about making the next right choice.” But that is hard to do when it feels like the choices have been taken and the doors and windows have been bricked over and graffitied with hate. It’s hard to make the right choices without the resources necessary to see them, let alone to see them through.
Yusef Salaam spoke often about the resources he had, that others in his position did not. He spoke of his mother, fierce and educated by the Jim Crow South in the ways of White Supremacy. He spoke of his community, his relatives and neighbors who ensured he and his siblings never felt like they were being raised by single mother because they had an extended family raising them up and teaching them ways to navigate and balance the world. He spoke of his school and his education that gave him a solid foundation to build from and help his mind agile. He spoke of his faith, and the members of his faith who offered him protection, encouragement and wisdom throughout his incarceration and beyond. He spoke of the few guards who saw and knew/believed that he did not belong behind bars and who helped him find his place and his peace within a system designed to break him. He spoke of the many times, just when the walls were closing in, he was shown another way, another choice, one that helped him through instead of chaining him down. These are the resources all people should have. They shouldn’t be rarities, reserved for a privileged few, doled out via chance and luck and skin tone and neighborhood.
While Yusef Salaam’s book reminded me of who and what and how and why I am, I think, for me, the true power of his book was in reminding me where I am, and that I have not only the power, but also the responsibility, to make this moment, this country, this “where” better and more equitable for all of the people around me and especially for those coming up behind us. It reminded me that I have to use my voice, my position, my privilege to lift others up, and to invite those around me to join the work. Every step we take helps clear a wider path. Together we can create a highway to equality. And after all, isn’t that the real American Dream?
Better, not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice by Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five is available May 18th, 2021 and can be pre-ordered now! Give yourself this gift, you deserve it.
P.S. As I was reading this book, I could think of easily 100 of my students off the top of my head who would benefit from reading it. I wrote a whole curriculum around it in my head (It’s not on a document yet, but I’ll try to get it down before it drifts away and will link it here once I do.) If you have a student who is going through some things and needs hope, or needs to be reminded that they are here on purpose, and for a purpose – this is a great book to get into their hands!!