Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five sets a healthy example for focusing more on finding strength within oneself to improve the world in the future rather than expending energy on the injustices one has faced in the past.
An inspiring social justice and spiritually-forward memoir, Better, Not Bitter provides a well-rounded perspective on the toll taken on the minds, bodies, and spirits of those involved in the American prison system. The book is an insightful unpacking of the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five in 1989, recollected by Yusef Salaam who was only sixteen when he was handcuffed and sent to the extremely violent Rikers Island prison with the four other boys. But a story is more than a sequence of events:
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.
While the Central Park Five's (now the Exonerated Five's) story has been told cinematically through a documentary by Ken Burns and most recently through a TV miniseries by Ava Duvernay, Salaam warns that making these stories too linear forces them to be less about people and more about black-and-white actions, events, and consequences. "Knowing the collective narrative is important. Knowing the story of the individual is transformative."
Salaam's life story reveals how Black Americans are constantly fighting, not just to exist, but also to matter in the world of white supremacy. He attributes his tenacity to the foundation set by his upbringing, so readers learn a lot about the ups and downs of his childhood in Harlem—his love for the arts, the people who taught him self-worth, and the way his name's history and meaning have shaped his understanding of himself. He candidly shares his experience in prison, incorporating research and statistics about the prison system, ultimately showing how:
This system of injustice uses incarceration as a way to avoid the problems of poverty, wealth gaps, and health disparities, among many others, all wrought by white supremacy and the history of enslavement and Jim Crow. Instead of uprooting the system, they justify it, wielding incarceration as a social machete to chop down the marginalized. It is the echo of state's rights. it is the echo of a Confederacy that was desperate for a way to continue the institution of slavery.
Better, Not Bitter humanizes headlines, and will hopefully inspire others to learn more about or at least care more about the individual lives who have and continue to be affected by the United States justice system's persistent inequality and lack of accountability. And for those affected, Salaam sets a healthy example for focusing more on finding strength within oneself to improve the world in the future rather than expending energy on the injustices one has faced in the past.
Throughout the book, the reader is witness to Salaam's constant internal work to maintain his sense of self amidst the barrage of external sources that were setting the entire world against him, not just during the trial but before and after this life-changing moment as well. And it wasn't just life-changing for him and the other four whose formative years were stolen from them. Salaam frequently cites religious passages that have helped him look at this time not with anger but with hope: Hope that the Exonerated Five's place in civil rights history is moving the human rights movement forward and also hope that the wisdom he gained from it will help other Black men and women hope, heal, and thrive as well.