When I spoke with Mr. Salaam, he ended our conversation for afternoon prayer. He was a practicing Muslim for most of his life, and the notion of a career in political leadership was born, against all odds, not long after he was arrested. He could not help but see amazing similarities between his own story and that of his namesake, the prophet Yusef, in the Qur’an who was thrown into a well, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. Ultimately he rose to a position of authority in his kingdom.
“I was just blown away,” Mr. Salaam told me. “For me reading that as a young person, it was a seed planted.”
After his conviction was overturned, he re-entered the world at 23, to endure the predictable indignities common to those who have been imprisoned. One of his first jobs after prison was working with construction at Mitchell-Lama housing complex on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. When the company he worked for found out who he was, he said, he was fired. The experience gave a terrible insight. “Prison is about continued punishment,” he said. “But if you survive prison, every door to success will be closed in your face.”
Many people in the community supported him when he was released, Mr. Salaam’s mother, Sharonne, told me. But many others did not. “You still have that boiling feeling as you try to get on with your life,” said Ms. Salaam, who was teaching at the Parsons School of Design when her son was arrested. An apology did not bring peace for all. “It was easier for Yusef to move on and see a way forward.”
After the construction job, Mr. Salaam worked in tech at Weill Cornell, became a motivational speaker, wrote books, received a lifetime achievement award from Barack Obama and helped raise 10 children — seven of his own and three stepsons.
He would like to bring more public bathrooms to Harlem. He worries about the effects of global warming on people who make a living as outdoor vendors. He wants people to look inward and look outward, to try to stay positive. However, to this day he has not had an apology from any of the prosecutors in his case. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Upper Manhattan voters accepted him overwhelmingly. A landslide can be the best revenge.