Freedom Is a Steady Action

Arisa White, co-author of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, on the time-endured lessons we can learn from Mason’s life.

Portrait of Biddy Mason. Public domain.

Biddy Mason Speaks Up, an award-winning book by Arisa White and Laura Atkins, tells the true-life story of Bridget “Biddy” Mason — a medicine woman and mother who survived slavery, escaped her captors, sued for her freedom and became a formidable businesswoman and civic leader and one of the first women landowners in Los Angeles. There, her home became a gathering place for the growing city’s Black community, and Biddy a major philanthropist and culture-keeper for Black Angelenos.

When the book debuted in early 2019 it was heralded by a chorus of enthusiasm that included a New York Times feature and numerous prizes, including the Nautilus Book Award (which exists to recognize “better books for a better world”) and the Maine Literary Awards’ prize for Young People’s Literature. In fall 2021, the New York City Public School system adopted Biddy Mason Speaks Up as part of its official city-wide curriculum. This week it sits among the featured books for Washington D.C. Educators’ Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.

This tale of survivance and pulled-together family unfolds in poetic episodes illustrated by artist Laura Freeman with contextualizing historical notes and photographs woven in between, and it inspires readers to reflect: How can we be like Biddy and extend our open hearts and hands to our communities?

Below, author Arisa White reflects on this question, offering five time-endured lessons that she invites us all to receive from Mason.

More than a teaching of Black history, Biddy Mason offers instruction for how to be alive in a sociopolitical system that reduces you to capital and estranges you from the beauty of your humanity. Biddy Mason Speaks Up is an interactive book that teaches how to live justly—giving readers tools for critical thinking: provocative questions, definitions, links to the past and present, and transparency in historical documentation, so readers can do their own (re)search into the archives. Biddy Mason Speaks Up teaches the reader how to be independent learners, and in the past three years with the COVID pandemic, gross mismanagement of the presidential election, the rollback of reproductive rights, and the banning of books and critical race theory, classrooms are not places abolitionist education can occur, especially for our Black, Indigenous, and Brown children.

What I found key to getting us free are these time-endured lessons I’ve gleaned from Biddy Mason’s life:

Start a garden. Grow your own vegetables, herbs, and plants which can be used as medicine. It is empowering to know where your foods come from, but most importantly, you develop a better understanding of your role in the larger ecosystem. An ecosystem that requires balances of give and take. We can’t always be takers without suffering the consequences of such a one-sided relationship, and our climate crisis is just one example of such consequences. Developing a literacy for the plant-life around you awakens you to the continuous lifecycle that sustains your breathing.

Nurture your spirit. We are not loved by our economic and political systems, instead we are worked to death by them. And in order to save ourselves from being dehumanized, our spirits need nurturance. That part of us that is energetic, that is interconnected, that unites us like one breath, inhaling and exhaling. It is our spirits that dream us forward and connect us to something more than what is happening day-to-day, to the external grind of competition and valuation, and success based on the imaginary.

Be of service. Our overall American culture is individualistic and even when we volunteer or do community service, it is often to the benefit of our own egotistical needs. All of us can think of a moment when someone’s help did not meet our needs. Our service needs to be personally rooted in a genuine desire to care and raise people up. And the way that we can be of genuine service is when we know, without division or hierarchy, ourselves deeply bound to those we serve.

Learn through apprenticeship. In our modern times, we prioritize and elevate the learning that only happens in a classroom. What often gets lost in this classroom exchange is that students forget they are learning from people—“people” unfortunately becomes an abstraction. It is most likely that Mason learned her midwifery and healing ways from an aunt or granny on the plantation. With apprenticeship, what you get is a transmission of knowledge that is both cultural, spiritual, and practical, which further unites and evolves the generations.

Build a community that can free you. With the help of the free Black community in Los Angeles, White allies, Mason was able to obtain her freedom from slavery. Who are your friends, family, teachers, mentors who challenge and encourage you to be your best, brightest, and strongest self? Not just like-minded people, but people who can shape and forge you into the authentic self that is budding to be. To be is a verb and your freedom is a steady action.

Through Biddy’s story, Biddy Mason Speaks Up traces the history of Black resistance and resilience from their earliest emanations to today, with explainers on everything from Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Readers are invited to draw these connections from past to present and to relate to Biddy’s story of struggle and triumph, presented by the authors through feminist and anti-racist lenses, emphasizing themes of solidarity and healing throughout. 


Arisa White is a Cave Canem graduate poet and her work has been nominated for the NAACP Image Awards, California Book Awards, and Wheatley Book Awards. Her recent poetry collection You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened was a nominee for the 29th Lambda Literary Awards. As the creator of the Beautiful Things Project, Arisa curates cultural events and artistic collaborations that center narratives of queer and trans people of color. She serves on the board of directors for Nomadic Press and is an assistant professor at Colby College. Visit her website at