When I spoke with Mr. Salaam, he ended our conversation for afternoon prayer. He has been 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 uncanny similarities between his own story and that of his namesake, the prophet Yusef, in the Quran who was thrown into a well, sold into slavery, wrongly 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 that was planted.”
After his conviction was overturned, he re-entered the world at 23, to endure the predictable indignities common to those who have been incarcerated. One of his first jobs after prison was working construction at a Mitchell-Lama apartment complex on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. When the company he was working for found out who he was, he said, he was fired. The experience provided a terrible insight. “Prison is about continuous punishment,” he said. “But if you survive prison, every single door for success will be shut 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 sensation as you try to move on with your life,” said Ms. Salaam, who was teaching at the Parsons School of Design when her son was arrested. Exoneration did not bring peace for everyone. “It was easier for Yusef to move on and see a path 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 to raise 10 children — seven of his own and three stepchildren.
He would like to bring more public bathrooms to Harlem. He worries about the effects of global warming on people who make their living as outdoor vendors. He wants people to look inward and to look outward, to try to stay positive. Yet 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 have embraced him overwhelmingly. A landslide can be the best revenge.