Faculty Research Spotlight: Arisa White’s Biddy Mason Speaks Up

Assistant Professor of English Arisa White (pictured left) made an invaluable contribution to childhood education when she published Biddy Mason Speaks Up, an unflinching and empowering biography of African American civil rights activist and midwife Biddy Mason. The newest installment in the Fighting for Justice series from Heyday Books, Biddy Mason Speaks Up won the Maine Literary Book Award for Young People’s Literature, as well as the Nautilus Book Award Gold Medal. This book does the essential work of educating children about the tragic history of American slavery, while sharing a message of hope and strength. It is a collaborative work: Professor White took the lead on writing poems about Biddy Mason’s life, Laura Atkins took the lead on writing the historical sections, and Laura Freeman created the illustrations. We highly recommend that you purchase the book, as it is important reading for both children and adults.

Professor White was invited to be part of the book by Laura Atkins, who started the Fighting for Justice children’s book series with Stan Yogi. The series focuses on social justice activists who have used the United States legal system to further social justice, thereby introducing young readers to primary and legal documents. The first book in the series, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, tells the story of Fred Korematsu, an American civil rights activist who fought against the Japanese American internment camps during World War II.

Professor White spent two years researching and writing the book before its publication in 2019.  “As a Black writer,” she told us, “it’s my responsibility to go back into the archives and find those necessary narratives that have been omitted or silenced and bring them to the surface. We need to learn about people who have effected change on both a personal and national level.”

The book begins with the story of Biddy Mason’s childhood growing up enslaved on a Georgia cotton plantation in the early 19th century. There were no records on Biddy’s early life, so Professor White constructed her story based on historical evidence and similar accounts. Professor White’s verses tell of a childhood spent learning about healing herbs and midwifery from an older woman whom she called Granny Ellen. As Indigenous people in Africa, the enslaved Africans that were brought to the United States knew how to use the land, and had a deep connection to it. Though at first displaced, they quickly adapted, making use of Indigenous technologies. The medicinal plants Biddy Mason learned about were particularly important to women and their reproductive health. This knowledge would end up being Biddy’s saving grace.

The story describes both the physical and sexual abuse which Biddy likely would have experienced. Professor White believes that sexual abuse is an essential part of the history of institutional slavery, which is often omitted from childhood education due to a misplaced desire to preserve innocence. However, by denying sexual abuse, important stories are silenced, and children are left vulnerable and ignorant. Knowledge is power, and Professor White believes that it is always best to tell children the truth. Sexual abuse, like racism, is an issue which affects young people today. By learning to recognize it in the stories of others, young people can call it out in their daily lives.

When she was 25 years old, Biddy Mason and her two young daughters were sold to a Mormon family and taken by wagon train to Salt Lake City. Biddy was torn from the only community she’d ever known and likely raped by her new master, for she soon gave birth to her third daughter. Eventually the family moved again, to California, which was technically a free state. For four years, Biddy and her daughters were held as slaves against the law. While in the burgeoning city of Los Angeles, Biddy befriended a group of free African Americans. When her master tried to move them to Texas, where slavery was legal, Biddy’s friends convinced the sheriff to stop him. After a long court case, at the age of 36, Biddy Mason and her daughters were finally freed.

Biddy went on to become a highly successful healer and midwife, working with a doctor in the local jail and hospital. She helped birth the children of many of the pioneer families in Los Angeles. As her wealth and renown grew, she bought properties, and helped to open the first African American Church in the city, as well as a school for children of all races. Biddy Mason built a network of care around her, sharing her resources and healing skills with anyone who needed them; and Professor White thinks that this sort of network is what we desperately need during these divisive times. Vulnerable communities can’t solely expect the government to provide for them—they need to provide and care for each other. When one person speaks up, they need to have a community to support them. People often feel disempowered by the belief that change comes from the top down, but in fact, the most impactful work is done from the ground up. “We should each ask ourselves,” said Professor White, “What are the networks of care I can participate in in my local community? In order to make deep rooted changes, we need to come together and think about the daily power we have to make change.”

The United States is rooted in slavery, the legacy of which still chokes our spirits. We need to untangle it, to participate in a collective discussion of healing. Professor White said that she has had educators tell her that they don’t want to teach about slavery because they don’t want the African American students to feel bad. Slavery is viewed as victimization, a history which may seem to cast modern day African Americans in the role of victims. However, Professor White believes that this is a failure of teaching. Learning about the history of slavery can teach students how resilient and creative African Americans are, despite the systems of oppression that still try to keep them down. Stories like that of Biddy Mason are stories of empowerment, providing roadmaps in difficult times.

Growing up, Professor White said she saw her Blackness as a constant state of victimization. It was only when she got older that she could fully comprehend the sheer power and beauty of her ancestor’s resilience, the strength she carried in her DNA. Researching Biddy Mason’s life led to her finding out about her mother’s informal education in herbalism and that her great great grandmother was a midwife. This connection to a long history of women who thrived off of—and healed from—the earth created a deep sense of belonging. “Doing this work was transformative,” she said. “Everything you need is here, you just need nurturing soil to let it all grow and bloom.”