After watching the Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, I was brought to tears by the manipulation of innocence and infuriated with the acceptance of injustice. The episodes invited me to understand the story of the Exonerated Five beyond a news headline and reshaped my view of the carceral state.
When I heard that one of the members of the Exonerated Five, Yusef Salaam, was coming to the University of Michigan to give a lecture, I cleared my schedule and anticipated the moment I would finally meet the person whose story I was so familiar with. I was eager to absorb all the knowledge Salaam acquired through his extraordinary experiences, and I awaited a stimulating discussion about incarceration and wrongful convictions. My expectations were limited to what I saw in the Netflix series and I did not anticipate that I would resonate with Salaam’s lecture to the extent that I did.
Salaam began his lecture narrating his perspective of the story depicted in When They See Us, and sharing other aspects of his experience that weren’t televised. He then went on to discuss his life through another lens. Salaam is a practicing Muslim and he made sure to establish that aspect of his identity during the lecture. Salaam emphasized his use of religion as a means to remain hopeful throughout his incarceration and as a reason to be grateful for his wrongful conviction. He told the audience how his name predicted his future, sharing the story in the Quran about Prophet Yusef, a man who was imprisoned for a rape he didn’t commit, and was later exonerated.
I felt chills throughout my body the moment Salaam recited the shahada (Muslim profession of faith), “la ilaha illa llah.” Salaam was not ashamed of his faith and he did not try to silence his spirituality. As a Muslim woman of color, I rarely hear my identity spoken about in that way. Hearing Salaam celebrate my religion to a crowd that wasn’t predominantly Muslim was so encouraging. The confidence he exuded for his Islamic faith was especially inspiring to me as I have always tried to limit outward expression of my faith. Though this event made me proud of my religion, it also led me to realize a key element missing from my life.
This one and a half-hour lecture was one of the most positive representations that I have had for my religious identity in my life. It was also one of the only times I have seen another Muslim profess their faith to a crowd this large, aside from a Mosque or Islamic event. Salaam’s confidence has encouraged me to express my love for my religion freely, but more importantly, to address the lack of accurate representation that Muslims face. Growing up, I witnessed the media alienate Muslim Americans and portray them as separate from American society. After listening to Salaam speak about Islam, I felt American. Despite every lie told about my religion, the lecture made me feel as if I belonged. This was an unusual feeling; yet, it allowed me to understand how important representation is for Muslim Americans. In order for Muslims to feel that they belong in America, they must see a diversified, human representation of themselves in media, politics, and everyday life.
I came to Yusef Salaam’s lecture to learn more about one of the men featured in When They See Us. I was not prepared to learn so much about my own identity.