Yusef Salaam Explores Institutional Racism In New Novel ‘Punching the Air’

Salaam channeled his own experiences as a part of the Central Park Five to write the book. 

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Yusef Salaam was just 15-years-old in 1989 when he, along with four other black and brown teenagers, were charged for the rape of a white investment banker who was left for dead in Central Park, New York City. Two-weeks after the attack, Donald Trump took out a full-page advertisement in multiple New York newspapers calling for the death penalty. It’s believed that this advertisement is what settled a lot of the public’s opinion on this group of boys; now known as The Exonerated Five after it was proven that they all were innocent in the matter years later, after they all had been imprisoned for multiple years. 

The story re-entered the public eye in recent months after Ava DuVernay released an Emmy-winning Netflix drama depicting the events called ‘When They See Us.’ Salaam himself spent about seven years in prison for the crime. Now, he’s 46-years-old with a college degree that he earned while in prison, and has dedicated his life to educating American citizens on what he refers to as “the criminal system of injustice.” 

Salaam has ten children, a massively successful career in public-speaking, has been involved in multiple policy reforms across the country, and has won a lifetime achievement award from former President Barack Obama. He’s now teamed up with Haitian-American author Ibi Zoboi to write a young adult book that’s based on his experiences, but also meant to reflect the general issues of racism in America and the school-to-prison pipeline. The story is told through the narrative of Amal Shahid, a 16-year-old black Muslim boy who is wrongfully charged for assaulting a white teenager who ends up in a coma. 

Zoboi, a National Book award finalist, claims that when she first spoke with Salaam they mainly discussed Donald Trump, and his rushed judgement that turned an entire nation against the group of innocent young men. Salaam claims that if Trump really had his way, the Exonerated Five would likely not be standing here today. 

“Had Trump’s ad taken full effect we would have been hanging from trees in Central Park, people wanted our blood running in the streets.”

Zoboi claims that Salaam took so long to actually tell his story because even after the group was exonerated in 2002, he knew the public still viewed him and the others as the villains, despite Matias Reyes confessing to the Central Park rape. Salaam discussed how even after his release his mother was subject to harassment from police officers who would yell “that’s the mother of that dog Yusef Salaam” at her. It was harassment like that which made Salaam so hesitant to make his voice heard. 

Now, nearly 20-years-later, Zoboi and Salaam claimed to have reconnected at a literary festival where Salaam was promoting a book of poems. Zoboi pitched him the idea right then of telling his story in the form of a young adult novel, and thus, ‘Punching the Air’ began to be written. Salaam claimed in a recent interview that telling his story through a fiction narrative made him feel like he was in more of a “safe space” to reveal his experiences. 

“We wanted to tell ‘the story of the two Americas’; what it’s like to live in a world where you may not make it home because of racism and systemic oppression.” Punching the Air is classified as a fiction text, although Amal is heavily based on Salaam. Zoboi said that her and Salaam would spend hours just talking, and from those conversations she was able to write poems capturing his raw emotion. She claims that poetry is what helped them get to “the heart of the matter” and allowed them to truly capture the heart of Amal, and the fact that he is simply a child being forced to grow up early into a system of oppression.

Zoboi also recently discussed in an interview how they really wanted to emphasize the idea of there being “two Americas,” and who’s allowed to be a boy and make mistakes in this country and who isn’t, based on history. Studies suggest that black students in America are four times more likely to be suspended from school when compared to white students. 

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“What we want the readers to take away from the book is that some people get away with mistakes and some people get punished severely for those mistakes.”

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With issues of systemic oppression, racial injustices towards black people, and police brutality being brought into the mainstream more within the past five months, ‘Punching the Air’ feels like a book that’s completely necessary, however, the darker reality for black individuals in America is this book could’ve been released at any point in history and still have held truth for what it is to be a person of color in the US. 

Zoboi discussed how this novel could’ve made a major impact in 2012 after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by a neighborhood watch member, George Zimmerman, over a supposed stolen bag of Skittles. She then went on to list many other major incidents of black people being wrongfully murdered by police officers and how the book would still hold relevance. 

Salaam himself believes that the age of social media and the younger generations ability to spread information within seconds is what’s bringing these injustices more to light. However, he also knows that even with the entire world watching, the system still exists as it has for decades. “Social media has allowed us to be more aware but it doesn’t seem that awareness alone makes anything change,” Hence, the work he does as a public speaker, policy maker, activist, and now, fiction-author. 

Salaam hopes that readers take the story of ‘Punching the Air’ and use it as inspiration to “never give up hope on themselves. To understand that you were born free and that you were born mattering.” ‘Punching the Air’ will be available to purchase on September 1st.