Yusef Salaam was a teenager when he was one of the five people wrongfully convicted of the murder of the Central Park jogger. This story is in part inspired by that incident. Written in free verse this is an extraordinarily powerful account of systemic racism in the American criminal justice system and how one mistake by a young black boy results in a conviction out of all proportion to the crime.
The story opens with 16-year-old Amal, a gifted artist and poet, on trial for punching a young white boy. Yet Amal only threw the first punch and none of the other punches that landed Jeremy Mathis in hospital in a coma. Amal was in the wrong place at the wrong time in a gentrified neighbourhood where an altercation got out of hand. As the trial proceeds the injustices become increasingly evident – the victim is spoken of as a boy and Amal as a man, yet they are the same age. Amal is appalled that the jury can believe the lies told about him without seeing him for who he is and is shocked to be handed a custodial sentence and sent to a juvenile detention facility.
Systemic racism was already prevalent in a school where no matter how talented and bright Amal might be, he had been branded a troublemaker for getting into a fight in grade 5 and for keeping his hoodie hood up in his art class. Thereafter, his teachers were continually on the lookout for any misdemeanours.
Amal’s hope of breaking out of this cycle and going to college are cruelly dashed by his sentence. Imprisonment nearly breaks him as he is forced to endure more casual violence within the system but with the strength and love of his family and his own resilience Amal never gives up hope. A creative writing class helps him to use his art and poetry again to find his voice and an inner strength. Then Jeremy begins to wake up and Amal hopes that now the truth will finally be told.
The free verse is the prefect medium to convey this raw and emotional story giving it an energy and intensity that is utterly compelling. The visual layout is excellent too. I have seldom read such an immediate and passionate account of prejudice and how racism is so endemic in the everyday lives of so many people. Even the 13th Amendment states that imprisonment is a form of legal slavery.
Every YA reader needs to hear this story – it is too important to miss.