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Yusef Salaam, above, was the keynote speaker for the Black History Month closing ceremony at Stony Brook University on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Salaam was one of the “Central Park Five,” a group of black teens who were exonerated of a false rape conviction in 2002. ERIC SCHMID/THE STATESMAN

“Sankofa” was the recurring theme that echoed throughout the Student Activities Center on Wednesday night at the closing ceremony of Black History Month, in which Stony Brook University acknowledged the accomplishments of NFL player Will Tye and keynote speaker Yusef Salaam.

“Sankofa” is a word that originates from Ghana and literally translates to, “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” In more straight-forward terms, Sankofa means that the past serves as a guide for planning the future.

Spoken word poetry performed by students reflected the chilling reality people of color face everyday. The poets quoted the “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan that demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri chanted after the death of Michael Brown, as well as the last words Eric Garner spoke when he was choked by a New York City Police Department officer — “I can’t breathe.”

These performances took place right before the commemoration of Will Tye, a tight end for the New York Giants, who was the first Stony Brook football player to join the NFL. He was honored with a Sankofa plaque and a “Together We Will Rise” t-shirt.

While many students and faculty adorned black shirts that read “Sankofa: Together We Will Rise,” with a triumphant fist in place of the “i” in “Rise,” no one embodied its meaning quite like guest speaker Yusef Salaam.

Salaam was one of five teens, known as “The Central Park Five,” who were falsely convicted of the rape of “the Central Park Jogger” in 1990. Their sentences were overturned 12 years later in 2002 when Matias Reyes confessed to the crime while serving a life sentence in prison for rape and murder.

After Salaam took the stage, he paced quietly from the center stage to the podium and then back again to the center. The ballroom was filled with the silence of the audience’s anticipation.

“Can I take you back on a journey with me?” Salaam said, diving into one of his spoken word pieces. “I stand accused.”

Salaam referred to his past as “being run over by the spike wheels of justice.” He was 15 years old at the time of the crime, and his new reality had introduced him to a side of America he had not yet seen. He referred to his situation as “the American nightmare.”

“I was ripped away from my loved ones and put in a place where I wasn’t supposed to survive,” Salaam said. He compared going into jail with the title of “rapist” to having a cattle brand. A man Salaam claimed looked exactly like The Punisher punched Salaam in the face, cutting him right above the eye.

It was not until a prison officer asked Salaam what he was doing there that Salaam started to really think about his life and his purpose. The officer told Salaam that he could tell he was not a criminal and wanted to know why exactly he was there, which made Salaam ask that very same question: Why?

Trapped in a prison cell and searching for solace, Salaam turned to the Bible. He found comfort in reading Genesis 39, in which Joseph goes to prison after Potiphar’s wife cries rape when he denies her advances. Salaam related to Joseph, and when he read that Joseph is proven innocent in the end, he hoped that would be his ending too.

That hope was fulfilled when Salaam was exonerated. He ended up working in the administration at New York Presbyterian Hospital and then at the North Shore-LIJ Health System before quitting to pursue motivational speaking.

“Although I loved what I did, it was more important to share my story,” Salaam said.

When Salaam finished telling his story, everyone was on their feet for a standing ovation.

Sara Paparatto, a junior sociology major at Stony Brook, drove 50 minutes from her internship to see Salaam.

“It’s amazing to see how he reacted with the whole process,” Paparatto said. “I feel like most people in his situation would still be angry, but he really has made a difference in his life.”

“It was well worth the drive,” Paparatto added.

Cole Lee, a junior political science major at Stony Brook as well as the president of the Undergraduate Student Government, had a similar reaction to Paparatto.

“That was exceptional,” Lee said. “He was truly so inspirational. Just sitting and listening was a privilege.”

Salaam gave the audience parting advice with a Ghandi quote, telling them to be the change they wish to see in the world.