Written by Devon Mitchell
On Tuesday, February 23, Dr. Yusef Salaam of the Central Park Five spoke to the Roanoke College community answering questions from a panel of students. In April 1989, when Dr. Salaam was only 15 years old, he and four other black and Hispanic teenage boys were accused of a rape they did not commit. The group of boys was sentenced to seven to thirteen years in prison. Their case created controversy and uproar in black and Hispanic communities over inequalities in the criminal justice system. Since their time spent in prison, the boys have been proven innocent, and have moved on. Yusef Salaam has gone on to get his doctorate and has become a civil rights advocate, which brought him to Roanoke College.
The talk was part of a series at Roanoke College to celebrate Black History Month. It began with Dr. Daisy Ball of the Public Affairs Department introducing the esteemed guest, recounting his story. Dr. Salaam began the talk with a moving quote to set the tone of the evening. He said, “I was introduced to the world at the age of fifteen as the scum of the world.”
Salaam continued to describe his experiences as a young black man, speaking on how he was mistreated and abused by the public due to the color of his skin. Although he went through many trials as a young man, Yusef Salaam knew he was born with a purpose. For Salaam, he soon began to find that he was meant to speak up against injustice and the wrongful norms that were so harmful to him and other people of color.
The rest of the evening was filled with preselected questions from students. Students asked a variety of questions from his inspiration for books he’s published to his opinions on juvenile crime. A key theme in Dr. Salaam’s answers was his use of poetic metaphors to describe his experiences. Salaam admitted he was inspired by the birth of hip-hop and the meanings behind words. He found that there are, “messages in music and music in messages.”
Another big theme Dr. Salaam spoke on during student questions was his faith and how it grew and strengthened him during his imprisonment. He spoke about how he spent a lot of time in prison meditating and reading. This time led him to the most influential moment in his life when a prison guard asked him who he was. Salaam spent time thinking about what seems like a simple question. He began thinking of the name he was given and discovered there was a prophet in both the Bible and the Quran by the name of Yusef of Joseph. The Prophet was accused of a rape he did not commit. This led Salaam to the discovery that his name meant, “God will provide teacher justice with peace.” Dr. Salaam said that this made him realize his call to purpose.
In Yusef Salaam’s talk with students, he inspired students to continue the legacy and use whatever privilege they have to speak up. The struggles Dr. Salaam faced at a young age are unimaginable, but he has been able to spin the narrative to teach others about the horrors of injustices in our legal system. Although his relationship with the police and authority figures has changed, Dr. Salaam looks at the opportunity he was given to inspire a new generation to be better than the last. As mentioned, the theme of the night was purpose. Dr. Salaam praised the Roanoke mission statement, “Live on Purpose”. He encouraged Roanoke students to, “Be excellent in what you’re born to do.”
These words, both inspiring and awakening, summed up the message of the night perfectly. Students, staff, and faculty were thankful for Dr. Salaam to take time during the busy month to speak on behalf of himself and the Central Park Five. Maroons will not soon forget the impact of the evening with Yusef Salaam during Black History Month.