Biddy Mason Speaks Up is the second book in the Fighting for Justice series from Heyday Books. Bridget “Biddy” Mason was an African American philanthropist, healer, and midwife who was born into slavery. When Biddy arrived in California, where slavery was technically illegal, she was kept captive by her owners and forced to work without pay. But when Biddy learned that she was going to be taken to a slave state, she launched a plan to win her freedom. She refused to be defined by her enslavement. Written by Arisa White and Laura Atkins, the book includes narrative storytelling, poetry, a historical timeline, and illustrations. A perfect book for middle grade and up.
Biddy Mason Speaks Up is a brilliant mix of prose, historical information and primary source material dedicated to shining a light on the sheer brilliance and courage of Biddy Mason and the community that surrounded her. Biddy Mason Speaks Up is part of the Fighting for Justice Series, which is intended to introduce young people to folks that have fought for change.
The book takes readers on a journey through Biddy Mason’s life from enslavement to freedom, highlighting the triumphs, struggles and hypocrisies of her time. Biddy Mason Speaks Up is an inspiring tale of what is possible when we are connected to our legacy of strength and tapped into those around us.
I had the extreme privilege of chatting with the book’s creators, Laura Atkins and Arisa White, about the process of creating this piece of historical gold destined to touch the lives of many school-aged children.
The book is wonderful, I’m so excited about it. I was reading and thinking of a million different ways that I would love to use it in the world and with my own children. You all did such a great job, congratulations.
Laura: Thank you. Thank you. That’s great to hear. You know, you work so hard on something and then it goes out in the world. We put in a lot of thought and I hope that shows.
One area that was really fascinating for me about the book was the integration of medicinal plants. Can you tell me more about where that element of the format came from?
When we were researching Biddy’s life, and going into the archives of slavery there was a book on childhood slavery, which was amazing as a source, it just really gave a historical and scholarly approach to how children were enslaved on plantations. What were their chores, how were they socialized into this life of enslavement. Girls in particular were taught how to protect their bodies. Then also learning about plantation slaves remedies and the role of the midwife, the granny on the plantation was an honor position within the sort of hierarchy of labor.
And then for me, it just felt like that was what brought Biddy Mason to light and why she became this major historical figure because of her relationship with the land and I think for me, it has shifted the way that I thought about black folks within the American context. We are not just these bio political entities. We are an indigenous people, meaning we have a relationship to land, we know land, we can read land. That’s so not taught and that was the saving grace to me while learning about Biddy, learning about slavery, learning about enslaved children, learning about midwives, learning about medicinal plants and learning that they can cure things and there’s so much around us. My world woke up once I was learning all those pieces, and learning about particular plants in different regions; learning about Mississippi, Georgia and along the Mormon Trail. I felt like we needed to include this. These [the medicinal uses of plants] are things that readers can try out on their own and the environment around them can now become activated with this knowledge so they don’t feel disconnected. One of the goals of this is to create empathy. I think that empathy extends not only between people, but the relationships to land and seeing the land as essentially a being. As we were writing poetry and researching each time I felt like each poem could speak to some kind of plant that Biddy uses. It was a way to make the book more interactive it’s not just about reading but now you can look around you and see what’s happening. How can you not only look around the world around you in terms of injustices but how can you also look around you and identify medicinal plants that are around you that can heal you and help you.
The book really speaks to a value, an asset that Black people and people of color bring. Our spaces are often taught as a deficit, our relationship to land is often taught in relationship to slavery and oppression. The way you framed it really highlighted that there’s a dynamic relationship that’s happening and that’s been going on for many, many generations.
The fun part was kind of making up elements like the creative nonfiction part. So we didn’t know her grandmother’s name, we didn’t know these true blood relations but because of the way plantation societies were set up, there was this collective way of raising children. And so I got to create Granny Ellen. Granny Ellen came here as a young a young person. We get this sense of lineage. Knowledge is passed down through people, versus that sense of thinking about enslaved people occupying a sense of either emptiness, void, or deficit like they didn’t have anything, but really, they had all that they needed. They had the seeds of what they needed to grow, to survive and make a way. I really wanted to show through these kinships to land and kinships to other people that we function as each other’s archives.
The section on injustice felt very significant in the book. I really appreciated that you took the time to discuss the legal loopholes and how laws were set up and the intricacies of it. Often we talk about free states and slave states and that’s the end of the conversation. The fact that they were technically free but then they couldn’t testify against the white person so then really there’s nothing you could do, except if you found ways around. I wanted to hear why that felt important for you to include and highlight and any significant things that stand out for you.
What’s so fascinating about Biddy Mason and it’s that as a character, as a figure, we had to imagine her not as the single heroic figure. It’s sort of like this great feminine way of thinking about power and thinking about change it’s very collective. Her story illustrated all of the ways in which it’s all about intersectionality. It’s about being at the right place at the right time having people being in certain places of power to help. It’s not like she did it all by herself. I think that comes out even more so in that section where it was like, if it was a year before, if it [Biddy Mason’s legal case ] didn’t happen the year that it did it would have never happened, because Dred Scott then happens like a year later. So it’s all interesting these moments of timing. I think what we wanted to show is that this was happening at particular historical moment where so much change was happening. And so many things were being made to concretize our legal system and she was on the brink of it all.
For Laura and me we wanted to show as much of that as possible. Without overwhelming the texts or the legal language and to think about how with free states, and not free state and state sort of, at any moment in time, ones freedom could be compromised, redefined or reframed. Freedom was this nebulous thing as well, is something that you can attain, but it had to happen through all these legal measures and that was a certain level of privilege. So I think in some ways, we started to show the different classes as black folks to and even the different classes of white folks within that time.
One of the ways we’ve approached this book is to really draw on stakeholders who were engaged in this work. We talked to many people in the field, including PhD expert on slavery in children’s books, Sherea Mosely, historian Susan Anderson, Abdi Soltani, head of the ACLU of Northern California, and others. While any mistakes are definitely our own, this gave us a broad range of research to draw on, in addition to all of the reading we did to write the book.
In that legal injustice section we don’t just talk about how California was supposedly a free state, but how it was rarely enforced. This counters the narrative we often have, that slavery was only a Southern problem and that there was no segregation in California — later in the book we talk about segregated schools. We were also able to include that Native people were legally enslaved in the state, which is something I didn’t know before doing this research.
Speaking to what Arisa was saying with the intersectionality, that’s something that the format lets us do. When we’re talking about Los Angeles being established, first of all, we can talk about colonization and occupation, and that there were Native people there first. But we can also show that the first people who came from Mexico where a very diverse group of people. A lot of them were Afro-Mexican and when you look at LA, and who lives there now, you see who is being discriminated against, including Spanish-speaking Latinx people. And they were there before Europeans. The governor of the state of California was the Pio Pico and he was Afro-Mexican. The format lets us bring in all of these strands to show a deeper sense of our history — not just in terms of injustice, but also who was here, who was doing what, and how things worked and work. Arisa really was the one who wrote the introduction, which totally captures what the series is about: “The record we call history does not tell the whole story. And so we were tasked with a creative act of repairing the historical record.” That’s it right there.
I learned so much in reading this, you know, it’s a small book, and it’s really packed with a lot of information and a lot of opportunities to expand on. I feel like now I need to learn more about the history of Afro Mexicans in California and more of the indigenous and enslaved folks sharing of plant histories. So one of the things that I’m wondering, as you all imagine where the book is going now and into the future, what do you imagine being the takeaway for young people who are sitting this in their classroom? Because, of course, it will be a standard textbook in many, many schools, because it’s so awesome. What’s the dream for what they’ll take away from this book?
I want young people to be able to hold history as a multi-threaded and multi narrative construction. To see that when we’re told something, that it’s actually just a kind of coordinate on a map. Where you need to kind of go out see all of the different threads. The different guides, who, what, where, when, and that we just can’t take what we are told to be all of the thing. And with that, that’s going to require learning about a more cosmological way of being in the world that, you know, I am connected to you, you are connected to me.
Arisa brought in the Ubuntu idea that we focus on at the end: “I am because we are.” We did a lot of talking about how to approach this book. And one thing we grappled with is if Biddy Mason is famous because she became rich, and how much is this tied to capitalism? She was also a community activist and philanthropist. In our thinking about telling the story, there were so many hours of thinking, conversation, writing, revising, and then more conversation. We ultimately came back to this idea: I am because we are. This story is community-based, maybe more feminine, more nature-based, and then cosmological, as Arisa said. How do we exist as people in this world? And how do we see ourselves in relationship to plants, animals, land, or people who’ve been here before? Or, and I don’t know that we got all this on the page, but I would love it if kids felt that multiplicity of connection and the sense that I am because we are. Like, my wellbeing is based on your well-being, and not just me trying to succeed and make lots of money.
Another part that really spoke to me was the section around active resistance. I really appreciated that there was a significant amount of focus on interconnected resistance and how people resisted slavery. Which also, is a very under discussed topic. Particularly with young people. And are there any additional reasons that it felt like an important piece to include?
It was important because in the first section we talk about power and we define it so many different ways, not just someone acting outside of you. We decenter this idea of power so that it extends outward margin and so with that what you get is that we all have agency to some degree. With that already established we have to show these acts of resistance because that speaks to agency and being empowered within the situation that you are in. And also it’s just to show enslaved people weren’t passive people. They were thinking about their circumstance, about various ways to feel free, be free, different routes to freedom actively, spiritually, to play through recreation, all of these ways for them, to find their sense of humanity, and restore it. You to nurture it, all of it. And I think like even as someone growing up and learning about slavery in schools.
Like all you heard, was Harriet Tubman and then maybe we’ll learn about Nat Turner. But it’s always these like huge depictions of resistance that actually feel overwhelming. And how do they manage to do all of that? You never see, how did Nat Turner do all of that? How do you show the daily part? The daily active resistance that lead to revolts and rebellions because those small acts are what then enable large change. And then having our lens be on black women, midwives and healers. You start to see the ways. You know, learning about the ways that granny midwives would help women abort children by using cotton plant, which is so fascinating. So here you have a cash crop that’s actually being used to protect women and not sort of creature more generation, right, so that becomes the idea of planned abortion and resistance. But then also see, you know, the idea of fellowship.
Growing up Black in America, you get these stereotypes of the magical spiritual negro, right? And that sort of thing. But then when you tie those into a historical narrative, part of that being our survival and thriving within the institution of slavery. It’s not just a trope, but this is a necessity. And then also connecting that to land, indigenous knowledge, and indigenous technology. I started to see that this active resistance as a form of technology and I just wanted that to be available to young readers. For them to know that there wasn’t passivity, there was active engagement with the system that they were in. They were either bypassing the system or working within, but always they were in collision with it.
Towards the end of us writing the book “Teaching Tolerance” came out with this amazing study and framework called “Teaching Hard History” that looks at how slavery is being mis-taught. They have a 10-point rubric of what one should do to properly educate about slavery. They have podcasts and teaching guides, which include addressing that we haven’t seen resistance accurately shown in resources for kids. Also, that when people ran away, this was a profound act of resistance, and that it had a big impact. People ended up in other states, and they were often leaders in abolitionist movements, but that’s not something we see. Slave narratives, telling the stories, you know, so just reframing, instead of thinking of it as either people didn’t do anything, or why didn’t people do anything? Enslaved people were doing a lot to resist and fight slavery. Abdi from the ACLU also encouraged us to include more about how Black people used the courts to challenge the institution of slavery, which is how Massachusetts abolished slavery.
And to bring in the idea of loving as an act of resistance. We can see people as human and having an emotional expression. They were finding ways to cultivate love between each other, and make it a thing. And that’s something that’s not talked about as well.
I loved learning about people working slowly. Or breaking tools. Yeah, you know, small acts of resistance. What power do you have? And what can you do?
The big narrative is really hard to live up to, right? And those are all of these small everyday things that we do including reading a booklet or writing a book like this or talking to other students that are really important components. I think you all did a really good job of conveying that resistance. Anything else you would like to share with the readers of “M is for Movement” regarding “Biddy Mason Speaks Up” in the future?
Yes, we had our Oakland book launch and we will be at the San Francisco Public Library on Wednesday March 13th at 10am.
Arisa will be at the 27th annual African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia
Laura will be at the South Berkeley library February 16th at 3:30pm w/ Stan Yogi
and Arisa will be at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Portland, Oregon; Friday, March 29, 10-11am