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A group photograph of 31 people at a Juneteenth Celebration in Emancipation Park in Houston's Fourth Ward.
Juneteenth celebration, 1880 (Photo public domain)

On a recent episode of 60 Minutes, viewers met the Miller family. They had recently purchased a house in Virginia close to the North Carolina border. They had driven by it their whole lives. 

As fate would have it, this house, known as Sharswood, lies on the site of a former 1300-acre plantation, where the Miller family’s ancestors had been enslaved.

Although they grew up close to the plantation, stories of what transpired there never filtered down to future generations.

Many Americans tell a rosy story to illustrate their humble beginnings: Determined, resilient immigrants from Europe risked life and limb crossing the Atlantic Ocean to escape persecution. 

But hidden in plain sight, as the Millers’ experience illustrates, are other stories, many stories, that tell of anguish, despair and torture felt by the Africans who were captured and shipped — in cramped, inhumane conditions — across the same ocean.

For many, Juneteenth is a time to amplify and reflect on these stories. It is also an answer to George Lawrence’s 1813 oration, “A Prayer for the Abolition of Slavery,” in which he petitioned the Lord to: 

“… crush that power that still holds thousands of our brethren in bondage, and let the sea of thy wisdom wash its very dust from the face of the earth; let Liberty unfurl her banners, Freedom and Justice reign triumphant in the world universally.”

But while the chains of slavery have been washed from the face of this nation, freedom and justice do not yet reign triumphant — and, for many descendants of African captives, very little historical recollection about slavery exists. The reason for this feeble collective memory is that enslavers made every effort to eradicate from enslaved Africans any sense of self, family or community.

That is why stories about this past must be told.  

A man I know, Rory Bryson, recently walked out of East Jersey State Prison after spending 30 years and 17 days behind prison walls. This year, Juneteenth will have a special meaning for him; it will be his first holiday in decades spent as a free man with his loved ones.

But for the nearly 2 million who remain incarcerated like myself, the holiday will be spent yearning for the opportunity to smell the sweet scent of freedom like Rory, as we experience a different kind of bondage in the home of the brave and the land of the free.

This Juneteenth, and for many more to come, the Miller family can pour libations on the graves of their ancestors, buried on the land of their blood, sweat and tears. And Rory can celebrate the liberation of his ancestors with his family. 

Let’s all celebrate the stories of freedom this holiday represents. But let’s also remember to ask: What other stories lay beneath our feet?

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

M. Yayah Sandi is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He requested that his first name be withheld.