Born in Haiti and raised in New York City, Ibi Zoboi is the author of the debut YA novel American Street, a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of Pride and My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, and the editor of the anthology Black Enough. Dr. Yusef Salaam was just 15 years old when his life was upended after being wrongly convicted with four other boys in the “Central Park jogger” case. In 2002, after the young men spent years of their lives behind bars, their sentences were overturned. Now known as the Exonerated Five, their story has been documented in the award-winning film The Central Park Five by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon and in Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed series When They See Us. Salaam is now a poet, activist, and inspirational speaker. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama, among other honors. We asked Zoboi and Salaam to interview each other about their new YA novel, Punching the Air, which PW described in a starred review as “a powerful indictment of institutional racism and mass incarceration.”
Ibi Zoboi: We first met as students at New York City’s Hunter College in 1999. How did you end up there two years after being released from prison? And this was several years before you were exonerated.
Yusef Salaam: I always wanted to continue my education and Hunter College would’ve given me the opportunity to finish my education—an education that was cut short when I was 15. I got an associate degree while in prison. I started to get a bachelor’s, but then they removed higher education out of prison. What brought you to Hunter?
Zoboi: I transferred to Hunter because I was looking for more of a social justice vibe, even though “social justice” wasn’t a term we were using back then. I heard about all the protests, open mics, and the radical newspapers and literary journals coming out of Hunter. I just had to be there. I became an editor for Hunter’s newspaper and the Black student-run magazine. So when I found out who you were, I went after you for an interview. It’s now that I’m just finding out that you were not ready to speak about the case because it was still so new. Had I interviewed you back then, what would you have told me?
Salaam: I would’ve told you that I was railroaded by the system, and that this was happening to us as a people and this has its roots in White supremacy. Okay, I probably wouldn’t have said that but that’s what I say now and it’s still true.
Zoboi: We talked about one of the men responsible for your conviction, the man who is currently the president. But I think we would have both been scared to make such claims. White supremacy was a taboo phrase back then that was equated with extremist groups. Now, it’s applied to every form of oppression. This was what our professor was trying to teach us. How did you become so aware at such a young age?
Salaam: A lot of my awareness came from my mother sharing stories of being raised in the Jim Crow South and what that meant. She gave us a parallel education that allowed us to understand who we were and where we are within the context of American history. I came across the great works of Malcolm X and I remember him saying that anything below Canada is south.
Zoboi: That’s interesting because the more we do these interviews together and talk about all the racial incidents that happened in New York City while we were children and teens, the more I realize how racially violent our city was. And now, there are documentaries coming out about these incidences—Bernhard Goetz and Yusef Hawkins.
Salaam: And it was all normalized. The thing about being in New York was that you thought that you had escaped overt racism. In New York, it’s covert racism. The thing I’m realizing when we do our talks is that we share so much in common growing up in New York. My parents are from the South, and you were an immigrant, but we saw the same things.
Zoboi: I watched everything from a top floor window and on the evening news. That’s why I wanted to become a journalist. The Central Park Five changed my perspective as a sixth grader and when other incidents took place in high school and college, it radicalized me. I brought that perspective to our collaboration. Because of our shared experiences, I was able to decipher everything that you told me and shape them into poems through the lens of a 16-year-old boy.
Salaam: It was perfect and beautiful!
Zoboi: At first, I had asked you to read in Amal’s voice and you said the flow wasn’t there.
Salaam: I was trying to find the beat!
Zoboi: ’Cause you had that beat in your own poems. Punching the Air is a novel in verse, so his story is told as a collection of poems. I was inspired by a few of the poems you wrote while incarcerated. In fact, what would 16-year-old Yusef think after reading Punching the Air?
Salaam: He would say, “That’s me!” He would think that Amal would be a kindred spirit. He would want to be his friend. When I showed my four-year-old son the cover of Punching the Air for the first time, he said, “That’s me!”
Zoboi: Yes, the boy on the cover is an updated version of you. What did you think of the cover when you first saw it?
Salaam: I was six feet tall by the time I was 12, and I had a flat top, so I stood out. My flat top was my way of expressing myself. I had designs on the sides. My mother would give me a haircut. So Amal on the cover with that hair and his dark skin, it’s a 2020 version of me. I remember all the back and forth. You knew what you wanted that cover to look like. I had no idea what was possible.
Zoboi: Yes! Punching the Air is my fifth book so I know that finalizing the art for the cover is a conversation I can have with my editor. I knew that the boy on the cover had to be a reflection of you as a teen. I wanted him to be artsy, defiant, but still childlike. We both agreed that we didn’t want the cover to look like a mugshot. I wanted this book to be a work of art and about art because art saved you, and it saved me, too.
In what other ways would you want your story to be told?
Salaam: It would be wonderful to share a story like mine in a wide variety of ways so that we are nurturing the seeds of purpose. My story begins to shape itself in ways that can talk through children’s books, film and TV, maybe even in an app, or a museum. Something like a mix between the Smithsonian’s African American Museum and Equal Justice Initiative but on a small scale—one that would capture the history of mass incarceration in this country. We would then be able to see the legacy of how this country has destroyed lives. In a larger sense, we are talking about purpose—us being able to see what we could’ve been. I would like this museum to be something that would capture why we are here and the many ways this country can create laws that stop us from fulfilling our purpose. We are here to give something. If we don’t give what we came here to give, this country will be without. The world will be without.
Zoboi: That would be so empowering: an institution that addresses oppression in its many forms and how that thwarts both our individual and collective potential. Imagine what you and the other Exonerated Five members could’ve been. Imagine who Amal was destined to be. Speaking of name changes, it was our professor who encouraged me to rename myself. And there’s a story behind your name in the same way that Amal’s name means hope.
Salaam: My name was a gift that was given to me that I had to live up to. A prison guard once asked me, “Who are you?” and I answered, “I am Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five who was convicted for a crime we did not commit.” He said, “I know that.” He asked me, “Why are you here? Who are you?” So now I’m doing the research into my name because I wanted to find the larger purpose. Why did this happen to me? Why am I really here?
Zoboi: Now this is one of the reasons why I collaborated with you. There is a certain perspective that we share that I wanted to bring into this book and into the children’s book world in general. We both share a deep sense of spirituality and love for the healing power of art. Was there ever a doubt in your mind that I was the right person to work on this with you?
Salaam: Not at all. You gave me a different outlook. You told me that somebody needs to be behind me, that my story is too big. And this was before When They See Us. Here you were in that space to give me the seeds of possibility—someone from my past that I just happened to run into. It let me know that there’s a larger and higher purpose. I said we gotta work together on something!
Zoboi: How about the fact that I’m a woman?
Salaam: There’s a certain kind of nurturing and caring that you brought to the story—a mother’s perspective. Mothers are the first teachers and healers. My mother was my rock. She was there before anyone else showed up. In situations like mine, mothers have to become warriors. My mother had to fight for me. She trained me to become our ancestors’ wildest dreams despite having gone through the system. My mother leaned on a power larger than herself while I was incarcerated so that I was able to lean on her. You brought that warrior mother energy to the story. That was Amal’s mother, too. She fought for him like my mother fought for me.
Zoboi: Thank you! Our society tends to leave women out of the conversation, even though we are the mother warriors, sisters, aunts, cousins. We’re not just fighting for the boys and men in our lives, we are fighting for our community and our people. What happened to you affected an entire generation and New York City in general. What happens to Amal affects his family and his community as well. Faith is a major theme in Punching the Air. We don’t usually see boys grappling with spirituality in this way. Would you say that all incarcerated teens grapple with faith and spirituality in some way?
Salaam: No. This is part of the trap. The trap is that the younger they can get you, the more difficult it will be for you to grow and evolve. This is the seed of recidivism. Most people don’t want to go back to jail. But the thing about recidivism, if they happen to fall again, they’ve cushioned their fall because they know what they’re going to fall into. They know what to expect when they go back. So this begins the endless cycle of incarceration.
Zoboi: This is because spirituality and self-awareness are not cultivated in teens before and after incarceration?
Zoboi: Would Punching the Air be that seed?
Salaam: Absolutely. Punching the Air provides the water to the seed that is already inside of us. The seed of potential for greatness. That’s part of the uncovering. Not tapping into that greatness is what keeps us confused.
Zoboi: Self-awareness and purpose, that’s what you’re talking about. I hope Punching the Air does that for young readers.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Aug. $19.99 ISBN 978-0-06-299648-0