Yusef Salaam speaks on Black identity, self-discovery behind bars

Noah Pasley

As part of Colorado State University’s Black History Month celebration, one of the exonerated Central Park Five spoke on his wrongful conviction at age 15 and what Black activists can learn from it.

The Feb. 4 event, organized by the Black/African-American Cultural Center in the Lory Student Center, featured keynote speaker Yusef Salaam.

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The Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five, was a group of teenagers, four Black and one Latino, convicted during a highly publicized investigation following the assault and rape of a white female jogger in New York City’s Central Park, as well as other assaults in the area.

The charges were dropped in 2002 after a convicted murderer and serial rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed to officials, and his DNA was found to match that found at the scene.

“I’m always excited to share this journey of growth,” Salaam said. “The story of the Central Park Five, as we were known back in 1989, is not a story they wanted you to know today.” 

Somehow, society systemically is trying to get us to ask permission to live a life God gave us.” -Yusef Salaam, keynote speaker

Salaam said the 13th Amendment is a “clue as to what is going on and how we can move forward” because it has historically worked to oppress minorities and return them to a state of slavery. 

Salaam said he aged out of the youth facility in 1995 and transferred to the adult facility.

“The worst part about that experience was that they cut my flat-top off,” he said. 

He went on to explain how the prisoner identification system functioned, describing how those convicted in the first half of the year, like himself, received an A in their identification number. Due to this process, Salaam was assigned the number 95A-1113.

“95A-1113 meant that, in 1995, I was the 1,113th person to enter the door, and it was February 27,” Salaam said. 

He spoke about the Black History Month theme of “Ubuntu,” a Zulu term that Salaam says means “A person is a person because they are people.” Salaam said society wants the Black community to accept a lower version of themselves.

Salaam said the political climate has a lot to do with understanding how important it is for us to see ourselves as being born on purpose, and therefore we have a purpose in life.

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“Somehow, society systemically is trying to get us to ask permission to live a life God gave us,” he said. 

Salaam said it’s best to live by the words of Maya Angelou: “You should be angry, but you must not be bitter.”

He said it’s important to be angry to create change, especially in voting, and that the “true stakes that we’re fighting against … (have) never been a color issue. The true battle has always been about battling spiritual wickedness in high and low places.”

Salaam said the story of the Central Park jogger case was a love story to God and his power.

“It’s a story of a people buried alive, but the system forgot we were seeds,” Salaam said. 

Salaam ended with the importance of perseverance, saying that Angelou’s words “taught us how to become alchemists,” and her words about anger and bitterness teach the community how to make the best out of a bad situation.

Salaam wrapped up with a performance of one of his own poems, which he wrote during his stay at the Clinton Correctional Facility.

“I’ll meet you in between Venus and Mars; in between Venus and Mars is the center of our attraction,” Salaam said. “Life is mortal, so follow the way of those who are heaven-sent.”

The lecture was followed by a short Q&A session where Salaam offered advice for Black student activists. 

“When I won my lawsuit, … a reporter came up to me and said: ‘What are you gonna do now?'” Salaam said. “‘Sure not gonna be sitting on a beach and sipping Mai Tais.'”

He followed with a verse from the Quran, loosely translated to “Surely after difficulty, there is relief.”

Noah Pasley can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @PasleyNoah.