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Book Review: Better, Not Bitter by Dr. Yusef Salaam

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Better Not Bitter

“Better, Not Bitter” by Dr. Yusef Salaam is the autobiography of one of the Exonerated Five: five young men (four of them African American, one of them Latino) – boys, at the time – who had been arrested, charged, and convicted in 1989 for raping and assaulting a white female jogger in Central Park. Decades later, the real rapist confessed, and the men were finally freed. Dr. Salaam’s book won the 2021 Muslim Bookstagram Awards for its powerful tale of seeking justice, holding onto his faith in Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), and working through the trauma of racism and prison.

Dr. Salaam was only fifteen when he was thrown into jail for a crime that he did not commit, over which he steadfastly maintained his innocence. Drawing parallels between the story of Prophet Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and his own, Dr. Salaam’s narrative is powerful, heartbreaking, and inspiring all at once. For any reader unacquainted with just how twisted racism against the Black community is, and how an entire industry of the prison pipeline has been created in America, the author’s experiences throw stark light onto these realities. He discusses the prison pipeline, the ways that media and politicians and the criminal system collaborated to put innocent men in jail simply because they were the most convenient scapegoats due to the colour of their skin. He examines how poverty and mental health and an entire society’s criminalization of the Black population has led to the ongoing crisis that exists in America today. 

“Better, Not Bitter” stands out not just as a memoir of an injustice that epitomized America’s systemic racism, but as so much more: a glimpse of Yusef’s life before he was unjustly imprisoned; his mother’s strong, gentle guidance and unending advocacy for her son and others in dire straits; a spiritual journey of choosing not to allow one’s soul to be imprisoned even if one’s physical body is. Gratitude, self-discipline, introspection, education, and determination to “live with purpose” are recurring themes in Dr. Salaam’s book. “There’s a long list of all the ways in which injustice has stolen things from my life. I prefer, however, to remember all I’ve been able to hold” (p. 59). 

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“It’s important that you don’t just read stories like mine and then go about your life, business as usual. Take a look at the evil that showed up in my life and figure out what your light will be. What will be your purpose in this moment? Whether you’re a child of a former enslaved African or a child of a former slave owner, how do you use your present-day privilege to help the cause of racial injustice? Can I leverage the resources I have and start donating to causes and organizations that help  people have been marginalized and trampled upon? Can I give my time and skills to work with communities and organizations at the grassroots level? Can I take my voice and use it to defend the voiceless, to have the difficult conversations needed to change hearts and minds? These are the questions I hope you ask, even as you unpack what your own purpose is.” (p 11)

For a mainstream published book, it was incredible to see how Dr. Salaam’s religious connection to Islam was deeply embedded throughout, highlighted as one of the most influential forces in shaping his life perspectives. “I’m no prophet,” Dr. Salaam writes, “But I do believe I have a purpose that made it so that despite the things designed to kill me – the racism, the criminal system of injustice, the attempted assault while in prison – it was God who told the prison to be cool and safe for me” (p.5). This is Dr. Salaam’s main message, echoed throughout: every individual has a purpose in life, and it is through connecting with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and seeking to live out this purpose that will guide a person so that “you can thrive in the midst of your trials” (p. 6).  The story of Prophet Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) – the author’s namesake – is evoked, the parallels clear: being unjustly imprisoned, yet prison being the crucible for spiritual growth, striving, strength, and flourishing. Over and over again, Dr. Salaam reminds us of Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) Wisdom and of His Mercy even as one is tested with trials beyond one’s imagining. 

“What I’ve lived through so far has required that I accept even the ugly circumstances I’ve experienced as God’s will for my life, in order to be equipped to embrace the future. Acceptance – more than even forgiveness – is what is necessary for our forward movement. And acceptance can absolutely live alongside our demand for accountability for those who have wronged us.” (p 15)

“Better, Not Bitter” is a sobering reminder and example of how systemic racism is not merely an abstract concept, but has real-world consequences for hundreds of thousands of individuals. It is also uplifting in its message of hope, spirituality, and determination to pursue justice, no matter how cruel and powerful the oppressors are. Dr. Yusef Salaam’s grace shines throughout the entire book, guiding readers through hard truths and encouraging us all to do better, live better, and most importantly, to live with purpose

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Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a Canadian Muslim woman who writes on Muslim women's issues, gender related injustice in the Muslim community, and Muslim women in Islamic history. She holds a diploma in Islamic Studies from Arees University, a diploma in History of Female Scholarship from Cambridge Islamic College, and has spent the last fifteen years involved in grassroots da'wah. She was also an original founder of MuslimMatters.org.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Fatina Kheirallah

    February 20, 2022 at 1:20 PM

    Masha Allah
    Where can I order this book?

  2. Zainab bint Younus

    February 21, 2022 at 12:07 PM

    You can buy it on most online bookstores and probably in most mainstream ones as well.

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